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Why Is Cancer Research Advancing So Slowly?

Cancer Guides

Paradoxically, people assume cancer research is advancing slowly when in fact since the early 1990, cancer research has been advancing at record speed. For example, DNA sequencing, real time PCR, cloning, and understanding cancer biology overall, are excellent examples of progress on the research front. The problem is actually in translation of cancer research into cancer treatments for most common cancers that occur. So yes, advances in cancer research have been achieved, but no, cancer risk remains high, cancer patient concerns remain abundant, and cancer cures are still all too elusive for most cancers.

The American Cancer Act 

Since the establishment of the American Cancer Act, when then President Richard Nixon declared the “war on cancer”, cancer treatment and technological advancement have largely remained relatively static over those past 50 odd years. Palliative care remains too frequent even as media resources proclaiming progress have proliferated, support for research from the American Cancer Society, and the notable example of campaigns for stopping smoking helping prevent cancer for many potential, future lung cancer patients. Here, further scope for improvements for identifying and mediatizing cancer preventing steps remain to be achieved.

While the American Cancer Act  dramatically boosted funding to the National Cancer Institute in hopes of finding the cure, and while research has in fact proliferated, and while improved patient engagement, proliferation of cancer centers,  along with better decision making in treatment strategies and targeted treatments have been achieved, cancer treatment still rests on surgery as the first line treatment for cancer, with  tumor removal procedures such as mastectomy for breast cancer that were pioneered in the early 1900s. Radiation therapy coupled to chemotherapy using Methotrexate and Mustard gas was introduced in the 1950s.

The Disconnect Between Medical Research and What Advances Become Life-Saving Cures 

Over time, other adjuvant therapies including hormone therapy have been added to the treatment mix in clinical oncology, with cancer survival improving for some cancers, such as  treatments for children with leukemia and some lymphomas which save lives for those suffering from childhood cancer. Cancer that has spread among patients with advanced cancer by and large remains depressingly unchanged, with cure rates fairly static despite research advances and improvements in cancer diagnosis. Cures to treat advanced cancer remain too low with no universal treatment to cure cancer. Cancer statistic death rates for advanced colon cancer and colorectal cancers, lung cancer, cervical cancers and ovarian cancer, metastatic breast cancer, melanoma skin cancer, kidney cancers, bladder cancer, and pancreatic cancer remain stubbornly high.

Improving treatments for cancer thus remains a major challenge as cancer death rates remain far too high, despite progressively better understanding of the cancer genome and better appreciation of cancer’s genetic basis, to develop targeted treatments for targeting cancer, and associated causes of cancer, and improved cancer screening with CT scanning and refined drug administration for different types of cancer. Cancer returns for too many patients who desire fewer side effects from what remain toxic treatment regimes, with metastatic cancer a pervasive fear for patients who want treatments for beating cancer or at the least, to better improve survival. 

Unfortunately, cancer progresses in far too many. Cancer risk remains high, as cancer survivors proliferate due to increases in the number of cancers treated, while patients with advanced cancers grow alongside. Rethinking national cancer strategies that involve the broader public in addition to patient advocacy groups offers hope to break down silos that exist between the research community, clinicians and the impacted public and patients themselves. We need to further demythologize and better explain cancer: How cancer cells work by cancer type, whether approaches involving aromatase inhibitors, HPV vaccines, or stem cell transplants, for example, offer realistic hope or not? Will a given treatment lead to hearing loss or not? Must all breast cancer cells be eradicated or can I live with a low level or not? And is cancer survival going to be attainable for those impacted in our lifetime?

To put it mildly, the medical research and public health communities have a long way to go to translate progress in cancer research to improving treatments. There is a clear disconnect at present between medical research institutions in the U.S. that succeed in generating thousands of worthy inventions each year to help cure and alleviate human suffering, many of which relate to cancer, and what actually is advanced into potential life saving cures. Only a fraction of the great ideas developed in research labs actually are developed enough such that they make it into treatments for those in need for one big reason – lack of critical funding to move the ideas forward through the rigorous proof of concept phases in the clinical trial process. 

The Valley of Death 

This funding breakdown, called the “valley of death,” represents the heart of the global health crisis. To give some context, the annual venture capital funding for the U.S. life science industry in 2018 was $15.8 billion. In 2018, $12.3 billion of venture capital investments in the U.S. went to emerging biotech companies working on new therapeutic drugs. Yet, innovations are less frequently funded by venture capital, particularly for prevention tools and vaccines, diagnostics for screening and early detection, clinical tools for monitoring disease, and solutions to mitigate the toxic effects of therapy, all of which have a role to play in addressing cancer holistically.

At Music Beats Cancer, we offer a charitable crowdfunding platform to advance a range of promising treatments, potential cures, diagnostics for screening and early detection, and other “out of the box” innovations that neither government, venture capital, or big pharmaceutical companies are interested in supporting. 

Empowering the Public to Support Cancer Solutions 

Music Beats Cancer enables entrepreneurs to access funding through charitable donations of crowdfunding supporters. At the same time, and we believe this is critical to our mission, we empower the public to directly and transparently support cancer solutions they care about. To do so, we strategically partner with emerging musical artists. We do so to help us shift the conversation around the war on cancer, giving people themselves the opportunity to actively participate in the innovation process, rather than relying on others for the arrival of cures. We feel this is contributing to democratizing the war on cancer, and moving it from an elite activity in the hands of experts only, to an endeavor where we all have a stake.

More worrisome is how cancer is being addressed globally. While survival for children with cancer has increased considerably from under 20% in 1970 to 75–80% in 2018 in high-income countries, only 20% of children worldwide are benefitting from this progress. Eighty-percent of young people live in low- and-middle income countries where survival rates are currently only 10% and 30%, respectively. Between 80,000 and 100,000 young people worldwide die unnecessarily from cancer each year because of a failure of diagnosis, and no or inadequate treatment.

In the coming years, Music Beats Cancer intends to scale its actions to have a greater impact on cancer at a global level, particularly where we know for sure that gains can be rapidly realized, among children with childhood cancers. While there is no such thing as “low hanging fruit” when it comes to cancer, our strategy will be to help promote impacts in places where gains can be quickly achieved.

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