Speaking at a September 25th Newsmaker event at the National Press Club in Washington D.C., Harold Varmus M.D., Director of the National Cancer Institute and co-recipient of a Nobel Prize reported that there has been a slow but steady decline of cancer by 1 to 2 percent per year for several decades.
Some of the progress is attributable to prevention, early detection, the ability to assess genetic risks, improvement in drugs, and over the decades, improvements in surgical procedures, chemotherapy, and radiation.
Today, the NCI National Cancer Program conducts and supports research through grants and cooperative agreements, conducts research in NCI’s labs and clinics, supports a national network of cancer centers, collaborates with other national and foreign institutions engaged in research and training, and disseminates health information.
This year NCI consolidated a number of its genomics initiatives including the program “The Cancer Genome Atlas” (TCGA) into a single Center for Cancer Genomics. The new Center is working with other components of NCI to ensure that the findings are applied to developing new diagnostics and therapeutics and integrated into medical practice.
Within the past two weeks, NIH reported that TCGA found that breast cancer shares genetic features with high grade serous ovarian cancer, a cancer that is very difficult to treat. The researchers found that by using the data generated as part of TCGA, they were able to gain insights into the four standard molecular subtypes based on a comprehensive characterization of samples from 825 breast cancer patients.
The research a collaborative effort funded by NCI and the National Human Genome Research Institute was published online and is now in print in the journal “Nature”. The hope is that the researcher’s findings will be a crucial step toward improving breast cancer therapies.
Yet even with the good news, there hasn’t been as much progress as hoped for through the years and researchers are trying to understand why treating the disease does not always produce the best outcomes.
Several factors are hindering researchers:
· Researchers have to deal with a collection of hundreds of genetically distinct diseases each with its unique vulnerabilities
· Researchers are dealing with a complex set of behavioral and environmental factors
· Societal and cultural issues can impede progress
· Financing of research is slower than it could or should be
· The accuracy of research is sometimes challenged
· There is an inherent aversion to risk so the emphasis is on safe scientific research
· There is a wave of data relating to genetic and clinical data which needs to be brought together
In spite of the issues facing the cancer research community, Dr. Varmus looks to the future and sees how all of the recent technological advances in genomics, molecular biology, and computational sciences, are making it possible today for researchers to achieve results to improve the lives of cancer patients and their families.