So this is June, I am in Chicago and that can mean only one thing: it's time for the annual meeting of the American Society of Clinical Oncology, a gathering attended by tens of thousands of physicians, health professionals and exhibitors from around the world.
It's also the time of the year when there are many reports of cancer breakthroughs, some of which will stand the test of time and others which will never get traction in the rapidly expanding world of cancer diagnostics and therapeutics.
I just attended a lecture which brought home to me once again that when we focus our science and our efforts on tackling the scourge of cancer, we truly can make some significant progress. When you break down the barriers, collaborate among experts, and ignore the boundaries, you can make a difference, reduce suffering and save lives. Such is the case with multiple myeloma.
The lecture by Kenneth Anderson MD, a leading researcher in multiple myeloma at the Dana Farber Cancer Institute in Boston, was the result of an award Dr. Anderson received from ASCO. Dr. Anderson is someone I have known and "followed" since our paths first crossed when we were both at Johns Hopkins in Baltimore early in our medical careers.
Dr. Anderson's lecture was excellent. He detailed the incredible progress that has been made in understanding the basic science of myeloma cells and how that science has led to significant and substantial gains in the treatment and survival of patients with myeloma.
From a disease that 40 years ago killed people in a matter of months or at best a couple of years, patients with myeloma are now routinely surviving for six and seven years. A disease that years ago could be controlled but not eradicated now has some patients achieving a true complete remission, which may well translate into long term survival, such as has been accomplished with chronic myelogenous leukemia over the past 15 years.
That's the "top line" of what Dr. Anderson had to say. But for me, the real message was the science, discipline and collaboration that have brought us to this day. It is a truly impressive accomplishment.
My admission here is that there was a lot of the science and the medicine that I couldn't follow in the presentation. It is very elegant work, it is complex science, and it is beyond my daily knowledge sphere. Ditto on the clinical research and the clinical trials, which have exploded in myeloma over the past decade.
But even not understanding all the fine points of the science or the treatment doesn't mean you can't appreciate the impact of what myeloma researchers have accomplished. Working together in collaboration across personal, institutional and national boundaries, they have done something that could and should be a model for other researchers studying and treating other forms of cancer.
Elegant science, discipline and collaboration among investigators worldwide (which Dr. Anderson fully credited during his presentation) have meant that the time from laboratory discovery to bedside treatment has shrunk remarkably from a decade or more to a matter of a couple of years in this disease. That's what has made the progress in myeloma so dramatic.
When I was a young clinical investigator in cancer treatment, I came to admire my colleagues who were able to take a fundamental idea, explore it in the lab, and then develop a career of expanding their knowledge into something that had impact on understanding the science of cancer and its treatment. Those scientists--be they basic scientists or clinicians--had a gift of insight and vision that few of us possess.
So as I listened to Dr. Anderson chart the journey of myeloma research from the early understanding of what makes a myeloma cell a myeloma cell to the impact of that basic science on the development of new drugs and treatment strategies that have so successfully changed the outlook for many patients with myeloma to the present day when there are even more exciting discoveries influencing even more dramatic treatment advances, I couldn't help but think about what an incredible journey this must have been for those involved.
I tend to be perhaps a bit conservative (some would say pessimistic) when it comes to advances in cancer research and treatment. There are many ideas that have been touted by investigators and the media alike which sound impressive, but really don't have practical impact on advancing our knowledge of cancer or improving the outlook for our patients.
However when I sit in a room as I did this morning--along with literally thousands of others--and hear a recounting of a journey that has meant so much to so many, I must admit that I am in awe of what can be accomplished when we do what we should do and what we need to do.
I will say that the researchers in the lab and the clinic who devote themselves to myeloma research have accomplished great things for so many. Perhaps even more important, they have shown us that by breaking down some of the traditional barriers--between researchers in the lab, between the lab and the clinic, between institutions trying to vie to be first with a discovery--we can achieve incredible success that results in meaningful advances that prolong lives and save lives.
As Dr. Anderson finished recounting his journey, he talked about a patient who was an orthopedic surgeon who had written a book about her own journey with myeloma. The words she offered have meaning for patients with myeloma that we would never have thought about even a few years ago:
"Cure means growing old and dying from something else."
For patients with myeloma, that day may be sooner than many of us realize.