When Cayden Addison was just three years old, his world was turned upside down by a devastating diagnosis: leukemia. His tiny body endured the punishing onslaught of chemotherapy, a grueling battle that brought with it terrible side effects and even brought him to the brink of death. For two long years, chemotherapy was their only weapon against this relentless foe. However, the respite it offered was cruelly brief, as Cayden’s cancer made a heart-wrenching return in February.
But this time, the medical world had a new strategy in its arsenal.
Instead of subjecting Cayden to the brutal rigors of chemotherapy, doctors could now target the very core of his immune system, transforming its specialized cells into precision-guided missiles aimed squarely at the malignant invaders. Astonishingly, Cayden experienced minimal discomfort, with just a few days of nausea to endure. His mother, Courtney, shared this remarkable story with an audience in Washington, D.C., gathered for an update on cancer progress from the American Association for Cancer Research (AACR).
In its annual progress report, the AACR celebrated the fruits of over half a century of taxpayer-funded research. The Addisons, hailing from Chesapeake, Virginia, exemplify the hope that these breakthroughs offer. Not only might this new treatment finally bring an end to Cayden’s cancer nightmare, but it also appears to have left him, now on the brink of his seventh birthday, free from any additional health complications.
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Courtney Addison, Cayden’s mother, expressed the collective sentiment of parents facing such dire circumstances: “We should not have to trade off having long-term side effects for the rest of their lives just to save our babies. They deserve better.”
Progress against cancer has been nothing short of remarkable. Today, more than 70% of children diagnosed with cancer can look forward to a long-term survival, and among adults, death rates have decreased by a third since 1991, sparing an estimated 3.8 million lives. This remarkable momentum has been further accelerated in recent years, propelled by advances in immunotherapy, tumor biology, and genetics, as noted by AACR President Dr. Philip Greenberg.
In the past year alone, 14 new cancer drugs have secured federal approval, and the applications of another dozen have been expanded to encompass new tumor types and stages of cancer. Dr. Greenberg, who leads the immunology program at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle, spoke of this period as one of extraordinary opportunity.
Immunotherapy, in particular, has witnessed tremendous progress. A mere decade ago, there was only one checkpoint inhibitor approved to combat melanoma. These inhibitors essentially remove the brakes that cancer imposes on the immune system, empowering it to combat tumors. Today, there are 11 approved checkpoint inhibitors addressing 20 different types of tumors. Another groundbreaking innovation, CAR-T therapy, first approved in 2017, now treats six forms of blood cancer, with more on the horizon. In some instances, CAR-T therapy teaches the immune system to vanquish cancer cells so effectively that cancer simply vanishes.
Recently, Drs. Carl June of the University of Pennsylvania and Michel Sadelain of Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, celebrated for pioneering CAR-T therapy, received a 2024 Breakthrough Prize in life sciences, dubbed the “Oscars of Science.” These prizes recognize impactful scientific discoveries and come with $3 million awards. Now that CAR-T therapy has proved its worth, an explosion of interest has ensued, with hundreds of companies conducting over a thousand human trials in various tumor types, autoimmune conditions, heart disease, and even infections.
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Nevertheless, challenges persist. For blood cancers, identifying immune system targets is relatively straightforward, but other tumor types present the daunting task of pinpointing targets exclusive to cancer cells, sparing healthy cells from harm. Additionally, CAR-T cells tend to lose effectiveness quickly in solid tumors, necessitating research into mechanisms for prolonging their action. Lastly, making these treatments more affordable and mechanized to broaden access is an ongoing priority.
The same mRNA technology underpinning COVID-19 vaccines shows promise in early cancer trials, providing yet another avenue for harnessing the immune system against cancer. Moderna plans to initiate late-stage trials in melanoma and mid-stage trials in lung cancer, a strategy akin to training the immune system to recognize and eliminate cancer cells, just as it does with infectious agents.
While these scientific leaps have significantly improved outcomes for some cancer types, others, such as pancreatic cancer and glioblastoma brain tumors, continue to defy easy solutions. It is crucial to maintain support for cancer research to overcome these challenges and drive progress further. This year alone, nearly two million people will be diagnosed with cancer in the United States, and over 600,000 are expected to succumb to the disease. Certain cancer types are on the rise, including early-onset colon, pancreatic, and uterine cancers, often linked to increasing rates of obesity.
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Cancer care disparities persist, with rural communities often underserved and left out of clinical trials. The AACR aims to address these issues by forming an alliance with the nation’s cancer centers, focusing on disparities in care, research, training, and public communication. Greater outreach is essential to make the public aware of the remarkable opportunities and advantages in the field of cancer research.
President Biden has launched the White House Cancer Moonshot, with the goal of halving cancer deaths within 25 years. Federal agencies and the private sector are taking new actions to support this initiative, including increased investments in cancer prevention, detection, and treatment, establishing a nationwide health network for clinical trials in underserved communities, efforts to reduce smoking, and collecting more data on cancers affecting military veterans.
The funding of cancer research remains a pivotal concern. The AACR and other advocates are lobbying Congress to continue supporting scientific research to prevent momentum from stalling. Research funding not only saves lives but also has a significant economic impact, generating billions in economic activity and jobs.
The story of Lesa Kirkman, a bladder cancer patient from Niceville, Florida, illustrates the transformative power of research. When she was diagnosed in 2016, she believed it was a death sentence, reflecting the grim reality of cancer when she was growing up. However, she entered a gene therapy trial in 2018 with minimal side effects. Today, she is cancer-free, actively participating in a tennis team and enjoying a full life. Her story exemplifies the progress made in cancer treatments, progress that inspires individuals to advocate for continued research support.
In the face of these scientific strides, it is imperative to maintain the momentum and provide consistent funding for cancer research. The AACR’s call to Congress is not just a plea for continued support but also a recognition of the immense opportunities that lie ahead in the fight against cancer. As Lesa Kirkman aptly puts it, “We’re all thriving because of the research that has happened.”