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.
Isis Pharmaceuticals (NASDAQ: ISIS) has five cancer treatments in clinical testing, including a compound in Phase III called TV-1011 that the company is developing in collaboration with Teva Pharmaceutical (NASDAQ: TEVA) and OncoGenex Pharmaceuticals Inc. (NASDAQ: OGXI). TV-1011 is designed to inhibit the production of clusterin, a protein associated with cancers that resist treatment, so it could make existing therapies more effective. TV-1011 has completed Phase II clinical trials in prostate, lung and breast cancer, and received Fast Track designation from the FDA for the treatment of progressive metastatic prostate cancer in combination with docetaxel.
In addition to TV-1011, Teva Pharmaceutical has two other cancer-related drugs in clinical trials. Teva and partner Gamida Cell are enrolling patients for Phase III testing of StemEX, which is used for patients with blood diseases such as leukemia and lymphoma who need a bone marrow transplant but cannot find a donor. StemEx modifies the level of free copper in cells to allow large-scale, self-renewal of stem/progenitor cells outside of the body. Stem and progenitor cells are fascinating because they have the ability to become other types of cells.
Teva has also partnered with privately held Curetech on CT-011, which is in Phase II testing. CT-011 is a humanized monoclonal antibody, a highly targeted form of therapy that, in this case, inhibits tumor growth and the spread of cancer cells. It is currently being tested for patients with certain types of lymphoma.
Also, Teva recently acquired Cephalon (NASDAQ: CEPH). In addition to an extensive pipeline of cancer drugs in development, Cephalon has a drug already on the market called Treanda, a treatment for chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL). It is also approved to treat B-cell non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma in patients that have not responded to other treatments. Treanda sales grew 77% in 2010 to $393 million. Cephalon also has Fentora and Actiq, which are not cancer treatments themselves but are used to manage “breakthrough” (meaning intolerable) pain in cancer patients.
Gilead Sciences (NASDAQ: GILD), as you know, is a leader in HIV and AIDS therapy, but it recently joined with the Yale School of Medicine to discover new cancer therapies. Gilead committed $100 million over a 10-year period to search for the genetic basis and underlying molecular mechanisms of many forms of cancer with a goal of developing new therapies based on their findings.
And Chinese pharmaceutical company 3SBIO (NASDAQ: SSRX) doesn’t have a drug that treats cancer directly, but it produces an important drug to manage the horrible side effects of chemotherapy. TPIAO treats chemotherapy-induced thrombocytopenia, a deficiency of platelets. This drug grew approximately 40% last year and is expected to grow another 20%-30% here in 2011.