The cancer community—those of us researching, fighting, and caring for people with cancer—is an optimistic and dogged bunch.
We’ve learned to focus on the long game. After all, President Nixon’s “War on Cancer” was declared in 1971 and it’s still raging. Still, the years have taught us much, especially how complex and daunting an adversary we face in cancer—a group of about 200 distinct diseases.
But something has changed.
There’s an optimism, excitement, and willingness to collaborate like never before. Beyond talk of potential new therapies, there are now serious discussions about imminent cures among the members of this battle-scarred and hype-weary community.
Tom Marsilje, a cancer researcher for more than 20 years and now a cancer patient with late-stage colorectal cancer, describes it as sharks sensing blood in the water. “The frenzy,” as Marsilje calls it, is being fueled by new technology, such as rapid genetic analysis, and successful new treatments, including targeted therapies, combination therapies, and immunotherapies.
In 2011, the Food and Drug Administration approved the first immunotherapy to treat melanoma, the deadliest skin cancer. Immunotherapies are treatments in which a patient’s immune system is activated to attack a cancer. Several more immunotherapies for melanoma have since been approved. There are now melanoma patients treated in clinical trials a decade ago who are still alive.
“In the past few years, we’ve seen virtual cures in a cancer that previously had a dire prognosis,” said Marsilje, a UC San Diego Moores Cancer Center patient. “If immunotherapies are potentially curing some melanoma patients, why assume they can’t cure patients with other cancer types as well?”
President Obama has appointed Vice President Joe Biden to lead a “moonshot” effort to combat cancer during his last year in office. Biden, whose son Beau died of cancer last year (one of more than 589,000 U.S. cancer deaths in 2015), said he’s committed to spending the rest of his life advancing cancer research.
Last year Biden worked with the Republican-led Congress to secure an additional $264 million for cancer research, the biggest increase in a decade. His political power and skills at finessing collaborations could be a priceless asset at this pivotal time.
Biden has since met with numerous researchers and patient-advocates discussing barriers to progress. He’s particularly interested in researchers’ complaints about the lack of data-sharing among research institutes and scientists competing for grants, philanthropic dollars, and patents. Biden said last month that one of his priorities will be to reduce the barriers to data-sharing, which waste resources and cancer patients’ valuable time.
For 12 years, the Moores Cancer Center at UC San Diego Health has held an annual gathering aimed at overcoming similar institutional, political, and regulatory hurdles to collaboration and advancing life-saving research. The 12th Annual Moores Cancer Center Industry/Academia Translational Oncology Symposium, set for Thursday, galvanizes collaborations that leverage diverse expertise, stretch research dollars, avoid repetition, and speed time to getting treatments to patients.
The 300 attendees are proven men and women of action.
Keynote speaker Dennis Slamon, director of clinical/translational research at UCLA Jonsson Comprehensive Cancer Center, identified the HER2 oncogene that is amplified in nearly a third of all breast cancer patients. His work led to the development of the breast cancer drug, Herceptin.
Keynote speaker Mary L. “Nora” Disis, an adjunct professor of pathology and obstetrics and gynecology at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center and associate dean for translational science at the University of Washington School of Medicine, is developing vaccine and cellular therapies for breast and ovarian cancers. She holds several patents related to targeted therapies.
Our discussions will cover targeted therapies that shut off the mechanisms that make cancer cells proliferate, stem cell therapies, and personalized immunotherapies, as well as combination therapies that are similar in approach to the drug cocktails so effective in fighting AIDS. And, as always, patient-advocates, including Marsilje and Ralph Whitworth, a late-stage cancer patient and investor in local immunotherapy programs, will speak to the important role that patients can play in developing cures.
“This is a transformative period, with real, measurable achievements within grasp,” said Scott Lippman, director of the Moores Cancer Center. “Success won’t be easy, nothing ever is with cancer, but you can hear and see real optimism and hope in working scientists and doctors. You see it in their collaborations, a keystone of cancer research here on Torrey Pines Mesa. It’s something we believe patients will see and experience too.”