Lessons from AACR: Time is greatest obstacle in cancer treatment
I have never personally known anyone who suffered from or died of cancer. I suppose that is an extraordinary fact, given that the American Cancer Society estimated that last year, nearly 1.5 million new cancer cases were diagnosed and more than a half million people died of cancer in the U.S. alone. In fact, the only awareness I have had of cancer has been limited to my reporting for this publication, an enjoyable read of comedienne Fran Drescher's irreverent recount of her cancer survival story in the 2002 autobiography, Cancer Schmancer, and the personal experiences shared by colleagues, friends or extended family members who knew someone afflicted by the disease.
So with great naivete, I along with perhaps many other uninformed Americans took President Barack Obama's January pledge to "find a cure for cancer in our time" as evidence that an end to the suffering of millions of Americans must surely be on the horizon. Last month, I headed to Denver with the rest of my DDN colleagues to attend the American Association for Cancer Research (AACR)'s 100th Annual Meeting, eager to learn more about this evidence.
Evidence abounded—particularly in the area of genetics research—that our nation's brightest scientists and oncology-focused pharmas are working to identify cancer biomarkers, better diagnostics and new therapies. Fresh from President Obama's announcement a month earlier that he will lift the previous administration's restrictions on federal funding for stem cell research, the convention was especially abuzz with excitement over this promising area of science. From the convention's many sessions to the exhibition hall's long aisles of poster presentations, the latest developments in oncology research were clearly on display. But during my last few hours in Denver, my bubble of optimism was pricked by deflating reality.
A few yards away from the bustling poster presentation area, I sat down with Dr. Kevin Koch, president and CFO of Array Biopharma Inc., a biopharma based in Boulder, Colo., that is focused on the discovery and development of small-molecule drugs to treat cancer and inflammatory disease. I listened as Koch animatedly shared the success story of Array Biopharma, which has collaboration deals with most of the major pharmas and presented several abstracts on its most promising preclinical oncology studies at AACR.
"It's been a great show," Koch said, looking around. "It doesn't seem as crowded as it has been in the last few years, although there is a proliferation of meetings this year. There doesn't seem to be as much news coming out of the convention, but I suppose science can only move so fast."
With the mention of time, Koch turned pensive and elaborated: "That's just it—when it comes to finding ways to treat cancer, time is the most important factor in survival. We can find the biomarkers and make sure the drugs are effective and safe, but the reality is, even if we do find breakthroughs, the question is, can we get those therapies to the patients in time to save them and give them quality of life?
"Last year, someone close to me was diagnosed with stage 4 gastric cancer," Koch continued. "By the time he was diagnosed, he was given three or four months to live. I found myself in the terrible position of being able to advise him on the best possible treatments, but knowing that he did not have enough time—or that the therapies would not give him quality of life in the time he had left."
The emotion of that disclosure hung in the air between us. What a statement to come from someone intimately involved with the pursuit of therapies—if not a cure—for this devastating disease.
"What's the answer, Kevin?" I asked. He didn't have one, of course, because one does not currently exist. But that isn't stopping his company and others from looking for it.
Until that day comes, I got a deeper perspective on this very personal disease, and it didn't come from a poster. Thanks, Kevin.