The start of a new year, particularly a new decade, brings a sense of resolve that helps to bring a clarity of purpose. Looking back at 2009, we have chronicled much change in the pharmaceutical and biotechnology industries—the megamergers, the impact of the financial crisis on the emerging pharma sector, slowing pharmaceutical industry growth, the rise of emerging markets, and the resulting changes on the supplier base. All important concerns, but in the spirit of the beginning of a new year and decade, I would like to take a moment to look at the heart of the matter for the pharmaceutical industry—the promise of new drug development.
Nowhere is the importance of producing more efficacious drugs more apparent than in the area of cancer. Almost 40 years ago, 1971, to be exact, then President Richard Nixon directed in both words and action what has become a difficult battle for the pharmaceutical industry to win, “The War on Cancer,” by signing into law the National Cancer Act (P.L 92-218). This law gave the National Cancer Institute increased autonomy and budgetary authority to “more effectively carry out the national effort against cancer.” In a speech before a joint session of Congress last February, President Barack Obama reaffirmed that commitment through a call for “a new effort to conquer a disease that has touched the life of nearly every American by seeking a cure for cancer in our time.” But where do we stand on the pledges made decades ago and again now?
According to a 2009 report by the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America (PhRMA), since 1980, life expectancy for cancer patients has increased about three years, and 83% of those gains are attributable to new treatments, including medicines. Another study cited in the PhRMA report found that medicines specifically account for 50% to 60% of increases in survival rates since 1975. But cancer still remains the second leading cause of death in the US, affecting more than 10 million people each year, according to data by the National Cancer Institute cited by the PhRMA report.
The cancer pipeline of US pharmaceutical and biotechnology companies is deep and reached a record level in 2009. There are 861 anticancer drugs and vaccines in human clinical trials or awaiting approval by the US Food and Drug Administration, according to a PhRMA report on cancer drugs. These drugs include 122 drugs to treat lung cancer, the leading cause of cancer death in the US, 107 therapies to treat breast cancer, 103 for prostate cancer, 70 for colorectal cancer, and many more for other forms of cancer. With the time to develop a drug estimated at between 10 and 15 years, that means that our best current hope to make good on the pledge to win the war on cancer in this new decade is already before us.
For sure, this past decade has seen scientific advances through ongoing development and commercialization of more targeted cancer therapies. Monoclonal antibodies, recombinant proteins, select small molecules, prophylactic vaccines, and improved drug delivery methods continue to hold great promise. Ten years from now, I hope that I can dust off the PharmTech archives with an addendum to this blog to chronicle the gains in cancer treatment made in the decade of 2010, which first began in the year 2010. That is one resolution worth making and one in which we can hope to be able to meet.