Forty years ago this December, President Richard Nixon signed into law the National Cancer Act of 1971 and launched what is now referred to as the “war on cancer.” Progress has been made — in some cases, significant progress — but the truth is that there are still far too many people dying from this awful disease. A game-changing breakthrough in this war would be more than nice, it would be lifesaving, and there are several companies developing weapons in this war that investors should pay attention too.
Let’s start with some good news: The rate of newly diagnosed cancers continues to decline, and overall death rates have steadily fallen. One article I saw from The Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) said that from 1991 through 2006, the death rate from all cancers fell nearly 16%. Better treatments, like Dendreon Corp.’s (NASDAQ: DNDN) personalized cancer vaccine Provenge, also produce fewer side effects, improving quality of life while keeping patients alive longer. We also have better prevention methods, and improved early-detection screening increases the odds of survival dramatically.
Now the not-so-good news: Nearly 1.6 million Americans were diagnosed with cancer last year, and 570,000 died from it, according to the American Cancer Society. That means cancer is claiming a life every minute of every day in America.
Sadly, those numbers may get worse before they get better. Nearly half of men and one-third of women will one day be told by their doctors that they have cancer The longer we live and the more we’re exposed to toxins and pollutants, the greater number of cancer cases we’ll see.
According to the MD Anderson Cancer Center, new cases in the United States will increase 45% to 2.3 million in 2030, with the biggest jump coming among the elderly and non-white populations. Even more disturbing, the hard-to-treat cancers that are often fatal are expected to see some of the largest increases, like stomach (+67%), liver (+59%), myeloma (+57%), pancreas (+55%) and bladder (+54%).
Still, there is hope. Keep in mind that we’re much better than we used to be at diagnosing cancer and finding it early, which has boosted survival rates but also increases the number of new cases. And greater use of vaccinations that help limit certain cancers, like liver and cervical, should also make a difference going forward. But to truly win this war once and for all, we need better treatments.
The war on cancer is the Holy Grail for biotech and pharmaceutical companies. Perhaps the most prominent is Dendreon. Its prostate cancer treatment, Provenge, is truly a breakthrough approach to fighting cancer. Provenge is made from a patient’s own immune cells, so it is a personalized vaccine that fights the disease by stimulating the patient’s own immune system. Cells are collected and sent to the company for manufacturing; the customized treatment is then injected back into the patient three days later. Provenge is currently approved for advanced prostate cancer, and Dendreon believes it can be developed to fight other cancers as well.