Feeling Good About Optimism at ASCO

Feeling Good About Optimism at ASCO

06.02.13 | By

Each year, optimism is the default mood at the American Society of Clinical Oncology annual meeting. And not without good reason: each year, new data is presented that changes the way oncology is practiced, in small ways and in big ways.

But in a blog post this weekend, Dr. Len Lichtenfeld, the deputy chief medical officer of the American Cancer Society, cautioned fellow attendees at the meeting not to get too excited, citing decades of optimism that never quite panned out. Sitting in a lecture about immunotherapy – perhaps the most promising area of research right now – Lichtenfeld worried that the excitement he was hearing was premature: “The speaker last night went on to extol the promise of immunotherapy. What he did not dwell on was the fact that the same promises were made 40 years ago. Along the way, the failures have been legendary.”

Ensuring that hope doesn’t outstrip reality is a noble goal, and Lichtenfeld should be applauded for reminding us that research is never “easy or convenient.” But there are countless reasons to think that oncology will move more quickly and more dramatically than it did in the 1970s. Perhaps the most compelling reason is that biopharmaceutical companies, doctors, academia and federal research institutions have much more to work with than ever before. 

At one end of the funnel, the amount of information about cancer in the scientific record is growing rapidly. In 2002, about 10,000 PubMed citations a year mentioned “oncology.” Last year it had more than doubled, to 23,000. That’s more than twice as many papers, twice as many new data points, twice as much new information about how to deal with the prevention, diagnosis and treatment of cancer.

And this explosion of research is showing up in the clinic. Last year, PhRMA counted 981 cancer therapies under development in the U.S. The list stretches well over 100 pages. And at the smaller end of the funnel, more and more of these treatments are making their way to market. Eleven new molecules that target cancer were approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration in 2012.

And that’s just new molecules. One of the emerging themes of this year’s ASCO is the importance, now and in the future, of combination therapy. Existing drugs will be used together in novel ways to stymie cancer, and much work will go into finding the exact groups that will bring the most value to the patient. 

There’s less and less reason to believe that the optimism permeating the ASCO meeting is misplaced. That doesn’t mean that every new treatment will live up to its promise; indeed, much of the research here each year is dedicated to explaining how good ideas failed to deliver hoped-for benefits. But with five dozen new oncology papers published, on average, each and every day, there will be more and more opportunities to score victories against cancer.

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