We Are Beginning To Realize The Promise Of Cell Free DNA In Cancer Care

Right now, when we want to know everything we can about a tumor, we do surgery: a biopsy to take a sample of it and look at it under a microscope and determine as best we can how to treat it. But what if instead you could get a blood test, and learn even more. That’s the promise of the relatively new science of what is called cell free DNA (cfDNA). It holds the hope of helping us better understand cancer, its behavior in our bodies over time, and even offering clues on how to better treat cancer in ways we would never have imagined even a few short years ago.

It was an important area of discussion at the American Society of Clinical Oncology meeting this week. It’s a meeting where, every year, we get a sense of the future of cancer treatment before it becomes a reality. From genomics, to immunotherapy, to targeted therapies–you name it—promising areas appear on the scene, then either become part of our reality or lose luster as the process unfolds over the course of several ASCO annual meetings. This year, several studies presented on the topic of the so-called “liquid biopsy” illustrate how … Continue reading →

Aromatase Inhibitors To Prevent Breast Cancer Recurrence: How Much Treatment Is Enough Treatment?

Here at the annual meeting of the American Society of Clinical Oncology in Chicago, we see results of eagerly awaited clinical trials that have involved hundreds or even thousands of patients, millions of dollars, and years of hard work and analysis. The results can be a success; they may fail; but quite often fall somewhere in between. And even when successful, the results may not be as clear cut as one would like.

Such is the case with an important trial whose results came were reported at this meeting and simultaneously published in the New England Journal of Medicine about the use of aromatase inhibitors (AI) in post-menopausal women with breast cancer. As is so often the case, the researchers are highly regarded, the study well designed—but even with all the best efforts possible, left open are some extremely difficult questions.… Continue reading →

Precision/Personalized Medicine: Can We Afford Our Success?

Here at the at annual meeting of the American Society of Clinical Oncology in Chicago, we are beginning to see the future of cancer therapy—and it raises a provocative question: will precision medicine become so precise, we risk turning off the much-needed investment of human, intellectual and financial capital that keeps progress flowing?

The sheer number of new drugs and new combinations of drugs being reported here at the world’s biggest, and most relevant cancer conference is staggering. Not all of them are ready for prime time, and some may never be successful in the clinic for large numbers of patients, but it is clear the era of old fashioned chemotherapy is diminishing and newer forms of therapies (targeted and immunotherapies among others) are on the rapid ascent.

But with progress, it’s becoming clear that a changing paradigm in cancer care that was predicted a number of years ago is now coming to life.… Continue reading →

Why Don’t We Pay As Much Attention To Prevention And Better Cancer Care As We Do To The Next Great New Cancer Drug?

The largest and most important cancer meeting of the year, the American Society of Clinical Oncology Annual Meeting, is going on this weekend in Chicago, and that’s a good time for one to give some thought to the broader topic of what has happened in cancer care over the past year.

But as I have started sitting in the sessions listening to stories of progress and new breaking research on truly innovative therapeutics and diagnostics, a lingering, somewhat troubling thought has persisted. I find myself coming back to a very basic question: we are spending billions—yes, billions—on new approaches to detecting and treating cancer. But we are spending nowhere near that amount on the fundamental “blocking and tackling” in cancer: the tactics that can help prevent the disease and –by applying what we know—can reduce its deadly toll.

What has been on my mind is a chance meeting I had with a lady during my recent travels. She saw the American Cancer Society lapel pin that I wear on my suit jacket and asked me if we are making progress in treating cancer. I answered her question with my usual cautious optimism (for some diseases, significant progress; for others, … Continue reading →

Change Happens: The Incredibly Rapid Pace of Change In Cancer Care

Change is a good thing, a necessary thing. At the same time, I have to ask how many realize how much change is happening so quickly in oncology and cancer care? And I wonder even more how we are going to separate change that is valuable from change that is simply, well, for the sake of change.

What brought about this moment of reflection was my attendance at a conference this past week sponsored by the American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network focused on the future of health care. The specific topic was “The Role of Technology in America’s Shifting Health Care Landscape.”

 After spending a day listening to discussions of change in cancer care—led primarily by emerging data analytics and health information technology—I was struck how the cancer landscape might be shifting quickly in ways that many of us don’t understand, and in fact can’t fathom. Putting the pieces of this puzzle together in a rational way in my opinion is beyond the capabilities of many of us, even those who have devoted our lives to understanding cancer.Continue reading →

Need To Balance Innovation, Benefits and Restraint When It Comes To The Rising The Costs Of Cancer Drugs

Cancer drugs—especially the new targeted and immunotherapies—are very, very expensive.

No doubt about that, and there is also no lack of effort trying to cast blame on who bears responsibility for those costs. There is even a recent article in the British Medical Journal that analyzes the size of the vials those drugs come in and suggests for some companies at least that may be a strategy to increase costs even further. What most experts can agree on is that this is a complicated problem for which there are no easy solutions.

I recently wrote a short commentary on the issue which appeared in Healio’s “HemOnc Today.” Although not exhaustive in terms of analyzing the issue, it does point out that we need to find a balance that continues to provide the incentive to innovate and bring new treatments to the care of cancer patients, while maintaining some degree of restraint given the reality that these costs simply cannot continue to increase without limit.… Continue reading →

Making A Difference: The Melanoma Research Alliance

A full waiting room. To most of us, it’s a bad sign, as we anticipate the excruciatingly dull minutes ahead. But at a meeting I attended this past week, it was a sign of hope, of progress; of making a difference.

I was in Washington DC to attend the annual scientific session of the Melanoma Research Alliance (MRA) in Washington DC, an organization that is only eight years old. When this group first met, it was made up of a relative handful of melanoma researchers and clinicians who came together to figure out what they could do to discover and promote more research and better treatment options for patients with melanoma.

The people behind the effort were Michael Milken and Debra and Leon Black. For them the mission was personal: Mr. Milken was a prostate cancer survivor who wanted to devote his energies to accelerating discoveries in cancer care. The Blacks are also well known in financial circles, and Ms. Black was (and remains) a melanoma survivor. 

At the time, the landscape for patients with advanced melanoma was bleak. There were a couple of available treatments, but they really didn’t have much of an impact on improving or extending Continue reading →

Keeping A Cool Head On Cold Cap news

The Food and Drug Administration this week approved a device to reduce hair loss in women receiving chemotherapy for the treatment of breast cancer. The media attention has been extensive and highly favorable. But taking a closer look at this, there are a couple things, as yet unreported, that have me more than a little concerned.

The machine is a form of a cold cap, and is designed to reduce the blood circulation to the scalp while a woman receives treatment to either reduce the risk of breast cancer returning, or to treat recurrent disease. The theory—which has been around for decades—is that if one reduces the circulation of blood to the scalp you also reduce the circulation of the drugs that can cause hair loss to the hair follicles. The result is that the hair doesn’t fall out, a common and very sad side effect of some chemotherapy drugs.

It is that same phenomenon, reducing chemo’s attack on the hair follicles that has always been the concern, as well: by preventing the chemotherapy from reaching the scalp, are we creating a “safe haven” for tumor cells that may cause a problem years or even decades later?

But that’s only … Continue reading →

The Updated Breast Cancer Screening Guideline From The American Cancer Society

The American Cancer Society has now released its newly updated Breast Cancer Screening guideline in the Journal of the American Medical Association

This guideline—which was last updated in 2003—reflects the American Cancer Society’s best thinking on breast cancer screening for women at average risk of breast cancer. They are not intended for women at high risk, such as those with genetic abnormalities (BRCA as an example), a personal history of breast cancer or a history of radiation therapy prior to age 30.  That guideline is available on our website at www.cancer.org.

So let’s get right to the heart of the matter: what are the new recommendations?

  1. Women with an average risk of breast cancer should undergo regular screening mammography starting at age 45 (Strong recommendation*)

          1a) Women aged 45 to 54 years should be screened annually (Qualified       recommendation*)

          1b) Women 55 years and older should transition to biennial screening or have the opportunity to continue screening annually. (*Qualified recommendation)

          1c) Women should have the opportunity to begin annual screening between the ages of 40 and 44 years (Qualified recommendation*)

2) Continue reading →

10 Years And Half A Million Words…

I just noticed this blog celebrated its 10th anniversary this September. So I hope you won’t mind me taking this opportunity to share some observations and reminiscences of what it’s been like to document by blog a decade of the changing landscape of cancer.

The first blog was published on September 9, 2005 when I introduced the blog and my vision for what i hoped it would represent.

The blog originated with a concept developed by our media relations team. Social media was just coming into prominence, and the Society was looking at ways to get into this space. Bob Lutz, a senior executive at General Motors at the time, was the model: he wrote a regular blog himself, and was pretty open in sharing his thoughts. It was clearly not one of those ghost written, pre-packaged types of things. How he found the time to do a blog was an interesting question, but the concept was intriguing: if we could have one of our senior folks write something similar, perhaps it would get some recognition in this rapidly expanding means of communicating.

So we ventured into the space and I started writing “Dr. Len’s Blog”. One of … Continue reading →