Cancer research: Where are we headed?

May is National Cancer Research Month

cancer research

In 1928, Sweden became the first country to issue a postage stamp commemorating the fight against cancer. On April 1, 1965, the United States issued its first anti-cancer commemorative stamp, pictured above. Source: Taub, Marvin. “Cancer Stamps: 50 Years in the Crusade Against Cancer Through Stamps,” CA: A Cancer Journal for Clinicians, v.28,no.3, May/June 1978, 164-169.

In 1971 President Nixon signed into law the National Cancer Act which officially launched the “war on cancer.” It earmarked a budget of $100 million towards cancer research and the promise to find new treatments for the second leading cause of death in America at that time.

“One of the most important things that came out of the National Cancer Act is that we started to do a lot of basic science to study the disease … today cancer is thought of as a molecular disease within a cell, whereas in the old days, cancer was thought of as a disease of tumors of tissue,” says Dr. Otis Brawley, chief medical officer for the American Cancer Society.

So where has this science taken us 44 years later? According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, cancer still remains the second leading cause of death after heart disease. However, all is not lost, we’ve come a long way in 44 years!

Unlike the 1970s, when hardly anyone who had cancer was considered a survivor, we now have more than 14 million cancer survivors in the United States, and that number is projected to increase as our baby-boomers age. While survivors are increasing in numbers, we have also made progress in cancer prevention though screening and early detection programs, specifically in colon and cervical cancer.

As Dr. Brawley’s comments above reflect, we have continued to advance our understanding of cancer at the molecular level. This knowledge in turn has led to new developments in targeted therapy, vaccine therapy and immunotherapy.

Precision medicine

In January 2015, President Obama declared the Precision Medicine Initiative. PMI takes into account individual differences in cancer and cell biology – it is the direct opposite of a one size fits all approach.

It has been upsetting for both health care providers and their patients not to know why a treatment would work wonderfully for one patient but lead to a devastating progression for another, despite both patients having the same type and stage of cancer.

This is where precision medicine can help. By analyzing a patient’s tumor we can look for possible drug targets or driver mutations specific to that patient. A great example is the collaboration between our Cancer Center’s researchers and the Thermo Fisher Scientific team who developed and tested a new tool called the Oncomine Comprehensive Panel. This tool has created an easier, faster, and more cost-effective way to analyze the genetic make-up of a tumor to find the best treatment options for individual patients.

PMI will also expand cancer clinical trials, which are the rigorous multiphase process of how new therapies go from the laboratory to clinical use. Clinical trials are not just for finding new drugs but also for cancer prevention and quality of life – both important issues for our increasing number of survivors.

Cancer research is not reserved only for new treatments; it also allows us to test new uses and indications for already approved therapies.

Just because a drug has been approved by the FDA does not mean we know all there is to know about it. Research scientists can see if it is effective in other tumor types or if it can be used as a first line therapy. For example, Nivolumab is a targeted therapy that was initially approved for metastatic melanoma and was later found to be effective in treating non- small cell lung cancer. It is still being tested in other tumor types, so stay tuned for possibly more indications.

While the War on Cancer did not produce the long sought after cure, it was a critical stepping stone in our understanding of cancer and raised the bar for cancer research funding.

In his Pulitzer Prize winning book The Emperor of All Maladies, Dr. Siddhartha Mukherjee shared that cancer is not one disease, but many, and is genetic at its core. These are two major understandings that would not have been possible without the funding and the commitment to cancer research made possible by The National Cancer Act. It helped lay the groundwork for our current Precision Medicine Initiative, and direction for cancer research.

Will we have a cure in another 40 years? No one can say, but we cannot underestimate the impact cancer research has had and will continue to have on the course of this disease.

Take the next step:

  • Read more about the Precision Medicine Initiative at the National Institutes of Health.
  • Learn about clinical trials and cancer research from this great collection of resources put together by the U-M Comprehensive Cancer Center.
  • Still have questions? Call the nurses at the University of Michigan Cancer AnswerLine™. They can help patients or their loved ones find a clinical trial or provide insights into the newest and latest cancer treatments. Feel free to call at 1-800-865-1125 or send an e-mail.

SusanDaron no captionThe Cancer AnswerLine™ nurses are experienced in oncology care, including helping patients and their families who have questions about cancer. These registered oncology nurses are available by calling 800-865-1125 Monday through Friday, 8 a.m. – 5 p.m. Your call is always free and confidential.



Cancer-center-informal-vertical-sig-150x150The University of Michigan Comprehensive Cancer Center’s 1,000 doctors, nurses, care givers and researchers are united by one thought: to deliver the highest quality, compassionate care while working to conquer cancer through innovation and collaboration. The center is among the top-ranked national cancer programs, and #1 in Michigan according to U.S. News & World Report. Our multidisciplinary clinics offer one-stop access to teams of specialists for personalized treatment plans, part of the ideal patient care experience. Patients also benefit through access to promising new cancer therapies.