Thursday, October 1, 2009

The Quest for Cures: Horizons in Cancer Research

Today Research!America hosted “The Quest for Cures: Horizons in Cancer Research” on Capitol Hill. Presenters included Mary Woolley, President and CEO of Research!America; Stacie Propst, PhD, VP of science policy and outreach at Research!America; Dr. Mace Rothenberg, MD, Senior VP of clinical development and medical affairs and Pfizer Oncology; and Kate Thaxton, pancreatic cancer survivor. Representatives Michael Burgess, MD (TX-26th) and Edward Markey (MA-7th) also addressed the attendees.

This event had a two-fold mission: 1. To educate the attendees about cancer and the current research in the field; and 2. To show the need for more funding for research in this field to find cures for the great variety of cancers that affect our population.

The event began with Representatives Burgess and Markey addressing the attendees and lending their support for cancer research, emphasizing the importance of both prevention and treatment. Mary Woolley and Stacie Propst gave an overview of the importance of research into finding cures for this disease. Dr. Propst emphasized the extensive effects of cancer are with both a Powerpoint slide attesting to that fact, but, perhaps more powerfully, asking for a show of hands around the room of people who had been affected personally by cancer. The message was clear; this is a disease that is extremely prevalent in our population. Dr. Propst then highlighted the important role that research has played in increasing cancer survival rates over the last 30 years (from 55% to 66%), but emphasized that there is still a long way to go. Increasing funding for research is the only way that we can achieve this goal.

Dr. Mace Rothenberg then added his perspective as a researcher. He began by highlighting the fact that cancer has a largely genetic component, and that personalized medicine will play an important role in discovering the treatments for these very diverse cancers. He emphasized the importance of the partnership between academic institutions and private companies, saying that it’s often the research done at the academic level that allows industry to pursue specific treatments. He then highlighted the importance of the clinical trials that allow these advances to be both proven and then made available to the general public, highlighting the story of a woman diagnosed with lung cancer, and given a chance at a cure through a clinical trial. It was her enrollment in this trial that saved her life.

Kate Thaxton, a three-year survivor of pancreatic cancer and the final panelist, shared the powerful story of her battle with cancer. When she was 34, active and seemingly healthy, she began experiencing pain in her abdomen. Though she was initially treated for indigestion, further tests revealed that her body was “riddled” with tumors; she had late stage pancreatic cancer. Such a diagnosis is, sadly, not uncommon for a pancreatic cancer patient: only a few risk factors for pancreatic cancer are known, there are no early detection methods, most symptoms could be attributed to a variety of conditions, and 52% of patients are diagnosed when they have advanced disease that has already spread.* What is both uncommon and incredible is that Kate has survived. The longer-term survival rate for pancreatic cancer is the lowest of all the major cancers: only 24% survive one year and only 5% of patients survive more than five years. Kate does not know exactly why she has been able to stay alive and moreover continue her active life, but credits it to a variety of different off-label cancer protocols and luck. Through her participation, Kate helped give a human face to the day, and her story clearly emphasized the need for further research.

At the end of the event, Mary Woolley moderated a Q&A, and her final question to panelists left attendees with a strong take-away message. She asked the panelists: “If you could speak to the President for fifteen seconds, what would you ask him?”
These were their responses:
--Dr. Propst said that she would emphasize the need to support further research.
--Dr. Rothenberg said that he would tell the president to come back next year to find out what has been accomplished (with regard to cancer research and treatment) and what challenges remain.
--Kate echoed Dr. Propst’s request and said that she would emphasize the importance of research.

Well put.


  1. A great article indeed and a very detailed, realistic and superb analysis of the current and past scenarios.