February 4 marks World Cancer Day, which aims to raise worldwide awareness, improve education and catalyze action to reimagine a world where millions of preventable cancer deaths are saved and access to life-saving cancer treatment and care is equal for all.

It is sometimes said that after a researcher has studied one cancer patient, he or she is left with the understanding of exactly one cancer patient. No two cancers are exactly alike, and scientists recognize that each patient’s experience is impacted by a variety of unique factors. In fact, the condition broadly referred to as “cancer” is in reality a group of hundreds of different diseases.

Due to these complexities, researching and developing new cancer treatments has long been challenging. While meaningful progress has been and continues to be made against cancer, it is still the second leading cause of death in the United States, accounting for 21% of all deaths. Moreover, cancer remains the number one cause of death by disease for children in the United States.

scientists working in lab

How Cancer Research is Helping Develop COVID-19 Treatments

With the growing understanding of cancer and immunology, scientists are now taking these lessons learned to fight infectious diseases like COVID-19.

Addressing the Challenge

To continue the progress and deliver hope to those battling cancer, biopharmaceutical research companies are working to develop more effective and better tolerated treatments. Today, 1,361 medicines and vaccines for various cancers are currently in development, all of which are in clinical trials or awaiting review by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

Researchers are exploring breakthrough methods and technologies to fight cancer as well as innovative ways to use existing medicines, either alone or in combination with other therapies. Additionally, an understanding of the role of the body’s immune system in fighting cancer has yielded revolutionary advances, resulting in a new wave of treatments that are transforming the treatment of many cancers. Some of the exciting new medicines in the pipeline include:

  • Immunotherapy, also known as immuno-oncology, enables the patient’s own immune system to fight cancer similarly to the way it fights disease-causing viruses and bacteria. These treatments can help unleash a patient’s own immune system against cancer, with the promise of lasting results. Different cancer immunotherapies work on the immune system in different ways. For example, some immunotherapies facilitate a stronger immune response to cancer, while others show the immune system what cancer looks like so that it can better identify, target and kill the cancer cells. 
  • CAR-T therapy, is intended to permanently alters a patient’s T-cells to multiply in the body into an army to fight the root cause of disease. To receive the treatment, a patient’s blood is filtered to remove a population of T-cells, which are then altered in the lab by inserting a gene that targets cancer. The T-cells are then returned to the patient intravenously, where they can then identify and target cancer cells.
  • Gene-editing, which is a technique involving the alteration of genes to correct mutations which cause cancer, introduce new genetic information or remove specific DNA sequences.
  • RNA interference and antisense RNA, which are relatively new areas of research and build on a pathway that uses DNA sequences to turn an abnormal gene off or modify the gene’s expression.
  • Tumor agnostic therapies, which are treatments based on the molecular markers of the tumor, such as a specific genetic mutation, rather than where the tumor originated in the body.
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PhRMA COVID-19 Treatment Progress

America’s biopharmaceutical companies are coming together to achieve one common goal: ending COVID-19. Our shared heritage of discovery and research allows us to respond to the coronavirus swiftly, with active trials for both treatments and vaccines already underway.

Continued Progress

While there is more work to do, the rapid pace of scientific advances has ushered in a new era of medicine for cancer patients.

Since peaking in 1991, cancer death rates have declined 31%, leading to more than 3.2 million cancer deaths avoided thanks in part to innovative medicines. And evidencing the speed of progress in recent years, the most recent data show, for the second year in the row, the single-year death rate decline has surpassed previous records, with a reported 2.4% death rate drop between 2017 and 2018 alone. Experts attribute the largest contribution to these recent declines to advances in new medicines for particular forms of cancer, such as lung cancers

As progress against cancer continues, rates of cancer survivorship also continue to rise.

The number of cancer survivors living in the United States has increased from three million in 1971 to 16.9 million as of January 1, 2019, and it is projected to increase to 22.2 million by 2030. Approximately 73% of survival gains in cancer are attributable to treatment advances including new medicines.

Combatting Childhood Cancer

From CAR-T therapy to immunotherapies, researchers are making breakthroughs in childhood cancer treatments.

While there has been enormous progress in understanding many cancers and the underlying biology which drive them, we have also learned how much more there is to learn about this remarkably complex set of diseases. The potential for progress has never been greater but realizing that promise is a challenge that requires talented, dedicated researchers, as well as a policy and regulatory framework that supports innovation.

Learn more about the more than 1,300 medicines in development to treat cancer.

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