The public’s focus on a “cure for cancer” is masking the significant progress that has been made in extending the lifespan of patients and making cancer a manageable disease in the long-term, according to a YouGov poll of patients and the public.
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The Institute of Cancer Research (ICR) says solely focusing on a “cure” risks overshadowing the “huge” progress made so far that now allows many patients with advanced cancer to live for longer.
The institute is calling for more focus on the development of drugs that stop cancer evolving within a patient so that those with even advanced disease can live a “much longer and better life.”
Over the last decade, the survival time for cancer patients has approximately doubled, with the average patient now living for more than ten years following their diagnosis.
However, the poll found that the public was largely unaware that cancer patients now face a much brighter future than before.
Only 28% thought of cancer as a disease that can be managed in the long-term. This compares with 46% thinking heart disease can be controlled in the long-term and 77% thinking the same about diabetes.
The survey also found that only one-quarter of people thought that progress is being made in fighting cancer.
ICR calls for people to re-focus their thinking
The ICR is calling for people to focus more on cancer’s ability to evolve and resist treatment, since although a cure is not yet in sight, new individualized, “Darwinian” treatments are enabling people with even advanced disease to extend their lives significantly.
The poll of 2,103 members of the public and 355 people cancer patients was commissioned by the ICR to inform the development of its new Center for Cancer Drug Discovery by evaluating people’s understanding of the challenges cancer evolution and treatment resistance present.
The center is launching the world’s first “Darwinian” drug discovery program in an effort to further increase the number of patients with disease that can be managed in the long-term and effectively cured.
According to statistics, the average survival time for people diagnosed with cancer has roughly doubled over the last decade, as new, targeted treatments significantly improve long-term management and quality of life.
It is cancer’s ability to evolve and resist treatments that cause most deaths from cancer, yet the ICR poll revealed that only half of people identified this as one of the main challenges faced in cancer research and drug development.
The commonly used term “all clear” is often misunderstood, with a third of the public and patients thinking it means cancer has bee cured, rather than it being undetectable, but still having the potential to return.
Only 60% of those surveyed understood that the term “drug-resistance” means treatment is no longer working, with many assuming the term was related to antibiotic resistance.
Fifteen percent of the public and 16% of patients were unaware that cancer could become resistant to treatment and return.
The “cure or nothing” thinking could be unhelpful
ICR researchers say that the “cure or nothing” attitude could be unhelpful, not only in terms of masking the progress made so far but also in understanding how to best approach the disease in the future.
The ICR is now raising the last £14 million it needs to finish developing the Centre for Cancer Drug Discovery and equip it with the state-of-the-art facilities required for the Darwinian drug program.
Researchers who will be working in the center believe the new approach will eventually lead to ways of managing cancer in the long-term and effectively delivering “cures” that would be comparable to the treatments for HIV, which, according to the poll, more than 60% of the public did think could be controlled in the long term.
Overcoming the challenge of cancer evolution
Olivia Rossanese, who will be Head of Biology in the new center, says: “Curing cancer will always be the Holy Grail of researchers and patients, but focusing exclusively on this risks masking the dramatic progress we are making against the disease, where even patients with advanced cancer are increasingly experiencing disease control in the long term with a good quality of life.”
People focusing on a cure has meant treatments tend to be as aggressive as possible, but for some patients, this could drive cancer to evolve and return in a more dangerous and less treatable form, warns Rossanese: “At the ICR, our aim is to discover many more anti-evolution treatments to overcome drug resistance, so we can not only cure a greater proportion of patients but also give others with advanced disease the chance of a much longer and better life.”
Chief Executive at ICR, Paul Workman, says that overcoming the challenge of cancer evolution and drug resistance is the key to defeating cancer.
“We believe it’s vital that we can take the public on this journey with us, by understanding that cancer is a hugely complex and evolving disease and that we need to move beyond the old, binary ‘cure or nothing’ thinking to find innovative new ways of treating the disease that can give people a longer and better life.”
Workman says that great progress against cancer is already being made, with diseases that were fatal just a few years ago now increasingly becoming manageable in the long-term term.
If we can finish off cancer evolution, we will effectively finish cancer.”
Paul Workman, Chief Executive at ICR