The Astellas Way

How the War on Cancer is Evolving

By Jim Robinson, President, Astellas Americas

Feb 9, 2017

Most Americans over the age of 60 remember a time when few dared speak above a whisper when discussing cancer. In retrospect, this makes sense. Just a few decades ago, any sign of a malignant tumor usually meant a terminal diagnosis. Since President Nixon first declared a “war on cancer” in 1971, researchers have made genuine breakthroughs, helping to decrease cancer death rates while increasing the sense that cancer isn’t a death sentence. As we marked World Cancer Day this past weekend, the state of the war on cancer is promising.

However, this isn’t a reason to rest on our laurels: despite our achievements, the road to innovative medicines is likely to get harder and various forms of the disease may well start to become more common. The progress we have made may only foreshadow a much more intensive fight against cancer that is likely to be characterized by small steps towards a cure and efforts to improve quality of life rather than focus on big breakthroughs alone.

Quite simply, the types of cancers that are becoming more common are a lot harder to treat than those forms we have come close to curing or turning into chronic conditions. Thanks to medical progress, few patients diagnosed with treatable skin, thyroid and prostate cancer die from it within five years of getting the news, while survival rates over a similar time period for breast, bone and kidney cancer top 75 percent.

On the other hand, stomach, pancreatic, liver and gallbladder cancer remain deadly for almost everyone who receives a diagnosis. This gives rise to an unfortunate paradox: Despite declining cancer rates for the population as a whole—driven most prominently by healthier lifestyles and innovation —longer lifespans for many people will result in more cancer overall.

At least in recent years, we’ve become accustomed to big, audacious goals and widely publicized calls to action on cancer—a recent example is the Moonshot Initiative. These efforts are necessary, but we also have to temper enthusiasm with the reality that progress may be slower than we might hope.

Nearly all researchers agree that helping patients who suffer from the most deadly cancers will require personalized medicine, customized to genetic code and tumor type. Science is increasingly expensive (although worth it) and difficult. Therefore, as more people come to live with cancer, it’s vital to focus both on cures and fostering an improved, more comfortable environment for people living with the disease.

In my own experience working at Astellas, I have witnessed the enormous difference that new medicines can have on patients’ quality of life. This led me to an unorthodox insight that I think will prove useful in the long run: in some cases, it may make sense to treat cancers more like we treat conditions ranging from the common cold to HIV-AIDS. That is to say, working to improve quality of life with the same rigor as we do searching for a cure. At Astellas, we believe that going beyond the medicine and truly understanding the needs of patients and caregivers are essential to enhancing the patient experience.

This focus is a key factor in our R&D strategy. We are proud of our leadership position and oncology pipeline, which we’ve built through a blend of investments in organic R&D, strategic business development and collaborative partnerships with renowned institutions.

Today, we offer a standard of care for advanced prostate cancer patients, and we have a robust pipeline of potential treatments for malignancies with great unmet medical need, including acute myeloid leukemia, gastroesophageal adenocarcinoma, bladder cancer, breast cancer and liver cancer.

Eradicating the scourge of cancer is a goal we share; more innovative treatments will come to market in increasing numbers over the next several years. However, true breakthroughs may take decades in some instances. As we venture into new and more complex scientific research, it’s important to do everything we can to search for treatments that place equal emphasis on improving and extending lives. It’s also vital that our policies and market systems recognize the scientific realities in the journey to both incremental and breakthrough medical inventions. 

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