Sept. 12, 2012 -- Seven-year-old Brooke Mulford and her family just returned to their Salisbury, Md., home after an action-packed West Coast tour, which included visits to Disneyland, Sea World, and the San Diego Zoo.
Brooke has visited the Magic Kingdom many times over the years, but this trip was even more special than previous ones (and not just because she loves Space Mountain). The family was celebrating Brooke’s three-year anniversary of being free from an aggressive form of cancer known as neuroblastoma.
Thanks to participation in a clinical trial, Brooke is doing much better today than anyone could have hoped. Her story is one that puts a face on some of the progress made in the fight against cancer. The 2012 American Association for Cancer Research Progress Report highlights stories of survivors, including Brooke, as well as some of the challenges facing researchers. The report will also be published in Clinical Cancer Research.
Lots of New Cancer Drugs, More Survivors
According to the new report, 2012 was a big year for cancer researchers, patients, and survivors. The past 12 months have ushered in a new drug for precancerous skin lesions, eight new drugs for several types of cancers (including two new classes of drugs), and four new uses of approved cancer drugs.
“It is an exciting time for oncology,” says Anna Barker, PhD, one of the authors of the new AACR report. “Acceleration in progress is exponential and we can’t predict what will happen from week to week.”
Just last week, the FDA approved Pfizer's Bosulif for the treatment of chronic myelogenous leukemia (CML), a type of leukemia more commonly seen in adults.
The number of cancer survivors like Brooke continues to rise every year. There are about 13.7 million cancer survivors in the U.S., the report states.
This is a “new day for cancer patients,” says Barker. “It’s a culmination of a decade’s worth of work.”
She cites the decoding of the human genome as a watershed accomplishment. “We now use that information to tailor treatment.”
This is the type of information that may help patients like Brooke in the future. While Brooke is cancer-free, she still has many issues related to her treatment, including vision and dental problems, and permanent hair loss. She has tests every six months since completing treatment in April 2010.
Her mom, Amy, hopes that a more personalized, targeted approach to cancer treatment could help limit side effects and help choose treatments that are more likely to work based on a tumor’s genetic makeup.
"I hope they can personalize treatment as opposed to just hitting it with everything possible,” Amy says.
We are getting there, Baxter says. “In the next five to 10 years, we will see some real change in how patients are diagnosed and treated, as well as how we prevent cancer by changing lifestyles.”
Looming Budget Cuts Threaten Progress
Challenges remain, including how to fund cancer research in a time of financial cutbacks, as well as how to manage all of the new genomic data. “It’s a data tsunami,” Baxter says. “We need to figure out how you find those pathways that will be critical for cancer.”
“It is a good news story,” agrees Frank McCormick, PhD. He is the AACR president and the director of the University of California, San Francisco Helen Diller Comprehensive Cancer Center. “There has been a renaissance in interest in immunotherapy, which has had a huge impact on refocusing the field,” he says. Immunotherapy teaches our body’s own immune system to recognize cancer and launch an attack on it. Brooke’s clinical trial involved immunotherapy.
The main challenges are shrinking budgets. Cuts are slated to take place starting Jan. 2, 2013, if Congress doesn’t find a suitable solution to the federal budget deficit. “This is a bad time to pull back,” he says.
There have been tremendous strides in treating melanoma skin cancer and in lung cancer, McCormick says. “There have been general increases in survival for breast and several other cancers in the last several years, but some cancers are tough nuts to crack, such as pancreatic cancer.”
Melanie A. Nix of University Park, Md., is a four-year breast cancer survivor who embodies this progress. She was diagnosed with breast cancer at age 38 just as she was planning to have a preventive breast-removal surgery to lower her risk of developing the cancer.
Nix, a mom and software executive, has a strong family history of breast and ovarian cancer, and she had options that weren’t there for her other family members. “In my family, breast cancer is genetic, and there some things we can try to do -- if not prevent -- at least reduce our risk for developing breast cancer.”