It should come as no surprise that cancer has a major impact on the lives of individuals and communities within the United States and across the world. According to the National Institute of Health (NIH), 1,958,310 new cancer cases and 609,820 cancer deaths are projected to occur in the United States in 2023 alone. Due to the overwhelming number of anticipated cases, in addition to the millions of patients already diagnosed with cancer, research and treatment development remain a top priority.
With May being National Cancer Research Month, let’s take a closer look at the U.S. National Cancer Plan, as well as what contributing factors have been instrumental in our progress toward eradicating cancer.
The National Cancer Plan
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) released the National Cancer Plan in April of 2023. The plan was developed in collaboration with the NIH’s National Cancer Institute (NCI), the President’s reignited initiative Cancer Moonshot℠, HHS, and other representatives from the cancer community.
The plan provides a detailed framework guiding governmental, private sector, academic, philanthropic, and patient advocacy partner actions toward the ultimate goal of ending cancer. In fact, it was designed to support the efforts of the Cancer Moonshot℠ initiative, which aims to reduce the cancer death rate by 50% within 25 years. To achieve this measurable goal, changes in the way advances in cancer diagnosis and treatment are translated into patient care will need to be updated.
An Overview of the National Cancer Plan
The National Cancer Plan outlines three key elements:
- A call-to-action that “every organization and individual—do their part to help end cancer as we know it”
- Eight fundamental goals
- Strategies that are aligned with each of those goals
The strategies involve a concentrated effort to unite U.S. cancer research and care communities in the fight against cancer. Note that the National Cancer Plan is a living document that evolves to accommodate expanding research and knowledge. As of the time of publication of this article, the eight key goals laid out within the National Cancer Plan are as follows:
The National Cancer Plan Goals
|Deliver Optimal Care||Healthcare systems to provide patient-centered and evidence-based care that focuses on cancer prevention, and enhances the lives of survivors and those actively fighting cancer.|
|Detect Cancers Early||Early detection of cancer and early treatment implementation to support more successful outcomes and lower cancer mortality rates.|
|Develop Effective Treatments||Offer patients effective treatment, with minimal side effects regardless of cancer severity or rarity of their particular cancer.|
|Eliminate Inequities||Provide equal access to prevention, screening, treatment, and care to all patients, helping to eliminate disparities in cancer risk factors.|
|Engage Every Person||Remove barriers to patient involvement and maximize opportunities to participate in clinical research, adding to our pool of knowledge.|
|Maximize Data Utility||Researchers share and utilize available information to make more efficient and rapid progress in the fight against cancer.|
|Optimize the Workforce||Vary the cancer care and research workforce to help represent all communities and meet the needs of all cancer patients.|
|Prevent Cancer||Support the adoption of proven preventative measures to help reduce the risk of cancer for all individuals.|
In order to achieve these goals, we must work together as individuals and as organizations to further our progress in the fight against cancer.
The New Director of the Cancer Institute Monica Bertagnolli
Leading the charge in our continued “war on cancer” is the new director of the National Cancer Institute, Monica Bertagnolli, M.D. After President Biden’s announcement to renew the Cancer Moonshot℠ initiative in 2022, Dr. Bertagnolli, and her team at the NCI committed to developing the National Cancer Plan to help guide the cancer research and treatment workforce towards success. (Note that Dr. Bertagnolli was recently nominated by the President to become Director of the National Institutes of Health, which may impact on the implementation of the National Cancer Plan.)
In addition to the National Cancer Plan, Dr. Bertagnolli has been instrumental in several of the NCI’s recent developments, including the:
- Major trials to evaluate multi-cancer detection tests
- Cancer Moonshot Scholars program
- NCI Telehealth Research Center of Excellence (TRACE) program
The Dana-Farber Cancer Institute alumna, joined the NCI in October of 2022. Dr. Bertagnolli previously served as the Richard E. Wilson Professor of Surgery at Harvard Medical School, was a cancer surgeon at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, and was a member of the Gastrointestinal Cancer Treatment and Sarcoma Centers at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute. Bertagnolli also trained in surgery at Brigham and Women’s Hospital and was a research fellow in tumor immunology at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute.
Dr. Bertagnolli has stood at the forefront of clinical oncology throughout her career, specifically aiming to advance our current understanding of the roles that gene mutation and inflammation play in the development of certain types of cancer. She has led initiatives such as the NCI’s National Clinical Trials Network, as well as initiatives to transform the data infrastructure for clinical research. In addition, she has served on the board of the Alliance for Clinical Trials in Oncology (a national clinical trials network member organization).
The Development of Cancer Medications
Over the last several decades, researchers have worked hard to understand how cancer (in its various forms) develops, changes, and evolves. Cancer is complex by nature and is an extremely adaptive disease, making it one of the most difficult to treat. Because no two cancers are completely the same, the course of treatment will vary in most cases.
That said, with advancements in technology and an increased understanding of the biology of cancer, we have made significant strides in our goals to prevent, treat, and even cure many different forms of cancer. Utilizing precision medicine, targeted therapies, and advancements in genomics, immunology, and screening, the development of cancer medicines has accelerated beyond what many thought to be possible. Let’s take a look at how these innovations have helped accelerate the development of cancer medications.
Precision Medicine and Targeted Therapies
Thanks to precision medicine and targeted therapies, treatments for certain types of cancer can be personalized based on an individual’s particular cancer, genes, proteins, and other substances found within the body. Utilizing these methods, researchers can use information from certain lab tests to pinpoint specific genomic abnormalities and markers within a tumor (that help it to survive and grow), and develop personalized, targeted therapies that have the ability to attack malignant cells, while avoiding healthy ones. It can even be used in combination with other cancer treatments, such as chemotherapy and immunotherapy.
Although not all types of cancers can be treated this way, precision medicine and targeted therapies have revolutionized the world of cancer treatment. This field of research and treatment is rapidly growing, creating a plethora of options we never thought possible.
Advancements in technology such as the development of artificial intelligence, CRISPR gene editing, high-throughput screening methods, cellular and patient imaging techniques, genotyping, next-generation sequencing, robotic surgery, and telehealth have had massive impacts on the development of cancer medications and treatments. These types of tools have led to life-saving breakthroughs in the ways that researchers are able to find, see, and treat cancer.
Other advancements in technology that have aided in the development of cancer treatment are big data and computational biology tools such as Cryo-EM and XFEL techniques, multiscale modeling, and single-cell sequencing. These types of tools have also enabled researchers and data analysts to review large sets of data, recognize specific patterns, and make information-based decisions when looking at how medications affect the body and in turn, how they affect cancer.
Developments in Immunotherapy
Another extraordinary contributor to the improvement of cancer treatment has been the development of immunotherapy. Although the immune system is one of the most powerful mechanisms in the human body, cancer has a way of tricking the immune system into thinking that it is not actually a threat.
In recent years, researchers have discovered ways to support the immune system (immunotherapy) when fighting certain types of cancers, teaching it to recognize which cells are harmful and which are acceptable. This type of treatment has been transformational in the fight against cancer, especially considering that it can be used in conjunction with other cancer treatments, increasing the chances of success. Immune checkpoint monoclonal antibodies that block the proteins CTLA-4, PD-1 and PD-L1 are the most widely used form of immunotherapy. This new class of therapy is based on the pioneering work of immunologists, Drs. James Allison of MD Anderson Cancer Institute, Tasuko Honjo of Kyoto University and Gordon Freeman of Dana-Farber Cancer Institute.
As previously mentioned, the National Cancer Plan actively calls for a collaborative effort in the “war on cancer.” This call to action is founded on the already proven idea that we can make infinite progress in the fight against cancer by working together on both an organizational and individual level. By sharing our data, resources, and expertise, our collaborative efforts have already helped to facilitate massive information sharing, large-scale clinical trials, fast-tracked translations of research, and more.
Unsurprisingly, funding is essential to the improvement of cancer care and treatment. This means that fundraising and awareness campaigns will continue to be a high priority across both public and private cancer research and treatment programs. Thanks to the funding previously invested by government programs, private organizations, and various philanthropic operations, researchers have been provided with the opportunity to develop new and innovative ideas, generate new therapeutic medications, and dive into comprehensive studies – propelling us forward in our goals.
As far as we have come, there is still much progress to be made. Learn more about the National Cancer Plan and how you can contribute towards the fight against cancer, here. For more information about the development of cancer research and treatment, consider my most recent article: The Importance of Cancer Research.