Cancer survivor numbers triple from 40 years ago in genetic push

Kelly Gilblom (c) 2014, Bloomberg News. NEW YORK — About 1 in 22 Americans is a cancer survivor, triple the percentage seen 40 years ago, according to a report that suggests science may be slowly catching up with the deadly disease.

About 14.5 million people in the United States have outlasted cancer or lived with a malignancy for more than five years, according to a report Tuesday by the American Association for Cancer Research. The progress reflects the use of new scientific tools that have allowed researchers to explore the genetic basis of cancer and target the molecular triggers that set it off or allow it to flourish.

Targeted cancer drugs approved between 1998 and 2001, including Roche Holding’s Herceptin for breast cancer and Novartis’s Gleevec for leukemia, helped ignite the genomic strategy that continues to pay dividends today, the report said. Since Aug. 1 of last year, regulators have cleared five new targeted treatments for cancer.

“There have been a mixture of successes and not-so-much successes, but the number of successes are growing rapidly when you look at all the new FDA-approved therapies,” Jeffrey Engelman, an oncologist and spokesman for the cancer organization said. “It’s a rather exciting time.”

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Increasingly, patients suffering from cancers such as leukemia are being splintered into smaller groups based on the specific genetics of their malignancies, rather than where the disease occurs. That has allowed researchers to pinpoint specific genetic mutations with new drugs, such as Spectrum Pharmaceuticals’s Beleodaq for lymphoma, approved by the Food and Drug Administration in July.

Along with focusing on specific genetic mutations, the newest medications also lessen side effects such as nausea and fatigue, said Ken Anderson, a physician and spokesman for the American Association for Cancer Research.

“These new medicines offer the opportunity for unprecedented extent and frequency of responses on the one hand and a very favorable side effect profile on the other,” Anderson said in a telephone interview.

About 1.6 million people in the U.S. will be diagnosed this year with cancer, a disease that cost the country $216.6 billion in 2009 in direct spending and lost wages, according to the cancer group’s report.

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Other new types of cancer treatments are now focusing on the immune system, to help protect the body from the growth of cancer cells. This month, for instance, the FDA approved Merck & Co.’s immunotherapy Keytruda, for melanoma.

“There are a lot of companies, there are a lot of people on the academic side as well as on the industry side working very aggressively and what we’re seeing is the number of new drugs coming to market is just increasing,” said David Mauro, a physician and researcher at Merck, in a telephone interview.

Keytruda is for patients that have tried Bristol-Myers Squibb Co’s Yervoy, an immunotherapy that works differently than Merck’s drug.

Rich Murphy is a married father of three children from Marshfield, Massachusetts. He thought he was suffering from allergies when his doctor found a golf-ball size tumor in his nose in July 2008. Surgeons removed the lump and he was cancer- free for a year until a scan showed the cancer had spread to his spine and midsection.

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He enrolled in a clinical trial, taking Yervoy for free, and his tumors shrunk 20 percent. When the cancer grew back, his doctor took him off the medication. He was placed in another clinical trial of Merck’s Keytruda, which was then known as MK-3475.

His tumors shrank, he said in a telephone interview, and now have disappeared.

“It’s been an amazing two years,” Murphy said. “In terms of people who are suffering, people who are at the end of line without any hope; there is hope. These clinical trials are hope for people who have no hope.”

While the new generation of drugs has increased survival chances, many people still do not have specific treatments for their cancer. Further, some cancers grow resistant to standard therapies during treatment, meaning patients can go into remission or see tumors shrink and return, and then must be treated again.

“The goal is not to play this cat and mouse game,” Engelman said. “If we understand enough, we’ll be able to develop combinations of different agents up front.”