AP Biotechnology Writer, Paul Elias, wrote an article this week that described how while the cost of cancer drugs have skyrocketed, the benefits are less apparent. It’s been more than 30 years since we declared a war on cancer and although there have been some real triumphs, and some great advances, the overall picture is not good. Tomorrow one of my closest friends is going into the local oncology center for the removal of what we all hope are some benign breast lumps. This post is dedicated to her, and to all those with cancer or at risk for cancer. Part of the issue is surely environmental, and we have much more to learn about what causes cancer and whether the toxins that we put into the planet are coming back to attack us. Part of the issue, though, is how we approach cancer care. THCB contributor Greg Pawelski has written before about the need for more chemosensitivity testing, and now writes on how we can use what we know to more effectively care for patients.
We have produced an entire generation of investigators in clinical oncology who believe that the only valid form of clinical research is to perform well-designed, prospective, randomized trials in which patients are randomized to receive one empiric drug combination versus another empiric drug combination. The problem is not with using the prospective, randomized trial as a research instrument. The problem comes from applying this time and resource-consuming instrument to address hypotheses of trivial importance (i.e. do most cancers prefer Pepsi or Coke?).
There are 60-80 different therapeutic drug regimens out there, any one or in combination can help cancer patients. The system is overloaded with drugs and underloaded with wisdom and expertise for using them. Government and academic clinical investigators have failed to support the individualization of chemotherapy through laboratory testing, in favor of attempts to identify "one size fits all treatments" through trial and error testing which has consumed tens of thousands of human lives. This entire effort has been a colossal failure and a colossal waste of human and financial resources.
One of the main problems in providing effective chemotherapy is the situation that every patient is unique. Tumors grow and spread in different ways and their response to treatment depends on these characteristics. The amount of chemotherapy that each patient can tolerate varies considerably from patient to patient. Therapeutic protocols currently in use are limited in their effectiveness because they are based on the results of clinical trials conducted on a general patient population, yet no two patients are alike. Chemosensitivity testing can help to improve the efficacy of cancer therapies on an individual patient basis.
Without the information provided by chemosensitivity testing, oncologists have the freedom to choose between multiple different drug regimens, all of which have approximately the same probability of working. Some of these regimens are highly profitable to oncologists. Other regimens are much less profitable. Pre-screen testing takes away a lot of this freedom to choose and narrows the selection to those drugs that have the highest probability to be successful but may have lower profitability for the oncologist. This cuts into the oncologist’s bottom line, though it benefits the patient.
The hallmark of the disease is heterogeneity, yet the powers that be insist on trying to homogenize it, rather than tailoring treatment to the individual nature of the disease. If we devoted 10% of the "one-size-fits-all" resources to developing and testing methods to individualize therapy, we’d have actually made some progress at lowering the costs of cancer drugs.