Yesterday’s announcement that three American scientists won the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine serves as a reminder of how important research is in moving forward our progress in diagnosing and treating cancer.
In addition, one of the awardees, Dr. Jack Szostak, was supported in the past with a research grant from the American Cancer Society. That brings to 43 the number of researchers that the American Cancer Society has supported at some time in their careers who have gone on to win the Nobel Prize, a truly stunning accomplishment that has not been matched by any other voluntary health organization. (We have also provided grants to other researchers who have worked in the laboratories of all three scientists who received the award.)
Many of these investigators have received awards from the Society at a very early time in their professional careers, when funding is difficult to obtain. Clearly, we are doing something right when it comes to recognizing those young scientists who have the bold new ideas and who go on to produce some of the most significant research in the world that changes science and changes lives.
There is a story here, one that I have heard several times from other Nobel Prize winners as well as esteemed scientists who have made outstanding contributions to the field of cancer research and cancer treatment. That story is the willingness of the Society to make early “bets” on the futures of promising young researchers, before they have established their reputations.
I specifically recall one event a couple of years ago when Dr. Judah Folkman—who recently passed away, and is credited with having the idea that led to the development of the cancer drug Avastin—told an audience in Florida about the role the Society played in helping him establish himself as a cancer researcher.
Dr. Folkman’s bold new idea was too “far out” and controversial for traditional funding agencies. However, the American Cancer Society saw promise in his concept and took a chance when they gave Dr. Folkman a grant. He credited that grant with helping him get his research career and his new idea off the ground.
His research led to a drug that has not only helped prolong lives from cancer but has also contributed to preventing blindness in many people worldwide. The Society thought his concept was worthwhile when no one else was interested. Clearly, the Society made the right decision.
What makes the story more poignant was that sitting in the audience that day when Dr. Folkman recounted his experience were the parents of a woman who had just been treated for breast cancer as part of a clinical trial for Avastin. She had a remarkable response to the treatment—at a time when all had thought hope was lost. The moment of that meeting between researcher and family was one I won’t ever forget.
As I have listened to these outstanding researchers describe their work, I have appreciated that the pieces of the puzzles can take many years to put together. Great discoveries with great impact are built piece upon piece, day after day, year after year. Success in cancer research is not an overnight sensation.
Which leads me to my next thought: we have invested a great deal in cancer research over the past many years. Although some might question the value of that investment, from my vantage point it has been money well spent. It has brought us to the threshold not only of great discoveries, but also practical applications which will benefit patients for years to come.
As I look at where we have been and where I think we are going, I picture two parallel paths. One path has been the development of new drugs and new ways to prevent, diagnose and treat cancer. We are now seeing the results of that effort, with a continuing decline over the past 20 years in the incidence and mortality rates for cancer.
The parallel path has been the development of a robust research effort which is now producing stunning results that were only a dream in the eyes of cancer researchers and oncologists when I started my career in the early 1970’s.
We are now looking at the routine analysis of the genetic profile of cancers, and we will be able to harness that information to predict who is at greater risk of developing cancer, to tell us how aggressive a particular cancer will be in the future and whether or not treatment is really necessary, and help us design a custom treatment program for a person’s specific cancer. We are looking forward to a day when we will diagnose—and perhaps treat cancer—before anyone can even find the cancer in someone’s body.
Researchers are developing programs which will make drug development and clinical trials more efficient and effective, with the hope of developing a cacophony of new targeted drugs at a cost that will be less than it is today and move those drugs through the development and clinical trial testing phases at a quickened pace that—again—was never thought possible.
But if we don’t make the continued funding commitments which will encourage the young people who are trying to fashion their own new careers in cancer research--and who will have the great new ideas for tomorrow--then those past discoveries and those past investments may well be for naught.
We live in difficult times. The economy is recovering slowly, joblessness is at historically high rates, and the world is an unsettled place.
How we allocate our dollars and how many dollars we have to allocate is creating difficult choices for all of us, including those who fund cancer research at the federal and state levels, as well as through charitable contributions.
It is important and necessary for us to stay the course, to continue to find the wherewithal to provide resources for these researchers, both those beginning their careers and those who have been developing ideas over decades and are ready to move on to the next level.
We are at a moment of convergence in cancer research and cancer treatment. We have travelled the parallel paths, and are now ready for those paths to merge and move forward. We need to support this effort, and make it happen.
You may say you have heard this all before, and can understand why you would think that.
Years ago, when I was an oncologist hearing about all of the investment in cancer research, I had my own doubts. I lived and practiced medicine in the real world. I had to deal with the sad reality that those investments were slow to translate into advances in diagnosis, treatment and survival.
However, I am one of the converted. I no longer question the value of our national investment. I am comfortable and confident that while we were moving forward on the clinical front, the researchers were moving forward on understanding what makes a cancer cell a cancer cell.
As we look to the future, we can envision a future for this century and what we can accomplish. We need to make certain that funding for research in the life sciences is not forgotten. We can make this century “the life sciences century,” and reap the benefits of our investments for our patients, for our nation and for the world.
To the researchers who won today’s Nobel Prize, our congratulations. To our researchers who work every day in their labs to move our knowledge forward, our thanks. And to those who have made and will continue to make their financial, personal and political commitments to advancing our science, our deepest gratitude.
Now is not the time to give up on our quest.