What if you were sitting in the room with some of the best financial and scientific minds in the country and someone asked how many of you would be willing to contribute a modest sum of money to create a company with the potential of speeding up the evaluation of drugs that could revolutionize cancer treatment?
That was the opening question of a fascinating meeting I attended recently at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, one where I didn’t want to leave my seat for a moment for fear I would miss another thought-provoking comment or idea.
The meeting was called CanceRX 2014, and for two solid days about 300 participants listened, debated, and engaged in discussion on how to make that scenario happen. No small task, to be certain. But in this era of ever increasing research discoveries of new treatment targets, it is clear that we need some innovative thinking to take what we learn in the laboratory to the bedsides of the patients we care for. And to make that happen we need as much “out of the box” thinking as we can muster. [more]
Let’s assume that we can continue to accomplish the grand goals of promoting innovative cancer research and find promising new approaches to cancer treatment. We still must face the sad reality that too many promising ideas can’t get the funding needed to proceed from the laboratory to the bedside to do what is called “translational research.” There are simply too many opportunities chasing too few dollars, and that means that too many ideas end up as great ideas that never have a chance to prove themselves in the clinic. And one of those ideas may just be the idea that could make a real difference in the lives of cancer patients everywhere.
Large pharmaceutical companies can’t do it all. There are budding biotechnology companies that try to pick up the slack, but consistent, reliable funding is a major problem for them as well-along with finding and affording the management talent to make their dreams a reality. On top of all this, somewhere around eight out of nine of the ideas that make it into clinical trials will fail. But those that make it can have a huge impact on the burden of cancer that we are facing today and which will become even greater as our population grows and ages around the world.
Enter CanceRX, a selected group of highly talented and accomplished people who have come together around a financial theory proposed to address this “valley of death” for translational research (not my choice of words, but a common refrain describing this circumstance). The theory is reasonably straight forward: if we could amass enough funding-not contributions, but actual funding raised through debt and equity markets-could we spread the risk of failure of any one group of new drug candidates balanced with the opportunity for success of at least one of those candidates and create a financially viable, sustainable enterprise that could lead to the control and possibly cure for cancer?
There was no doubt in that room over the course of the meeting that it could be done. The finance people offered a number of ways to accomplish the goals. The medical/science folks nodded in agreement that with focus and good stewardship-including jettisoning failures when they were recognized as failures-it could be done. The advocacy folks said “Why not?”
There are some obvious barriers: the estimates to make this happen are-hold onto your hats–$30 billion. That’s a pretty big chunk of change. But maybe we can start smaller. Maybe we can prove the principle works. And maybe there are enough people around who would willingly share ownership of the idea, and buy in (literally) to the promise. Spread a small financial risk among enough people for a potentially large gain.
The Cystic Fibrosis Foundation has shown that this can be done. Several years ago they made a commitment to fund research on treatments for the disease, invested millions of dollars, had incredible success and have committed millions more to the effort. Their supporters are passionate about their cause and their commitment, as I have witnessed personally on several occasions. They were fortunate in that they took a huge chance in committing their donor funds to this project, and the good news is that it worked. The question remains what if it had not? But it did.
So the pieces of the puzzle are indeed coming together: we continue to develop the science at a rapid clip. We need to make certain that we can gather the information we need to understand even more about the cancer genome. We need to expand the analytics to make that possibility a quick reality. We need the patient and advocacy communities to get on board, along with the medical community which needs to recognize that this is an important part of the care we offer our patients. We need to take that information and develop drugs to impact the new targets that we will find. And then we need to take that genomic information and go directly to the patients to alert them to the opportunity that a new treatment for their disease is being developed. And we need to make certain that stable, sustainable funding is available to be certain drug development can proceed through from early conception to final success, realizing that we will likely have many more failures than successes. And through this journey we must always believe we will ultimately succeed.
Sounds daunting, doesn’t it? I actually don’t think it is, but then that’s what has made me a lifelong and inveterate optimist. Many of us at heart are optimists. Maybe it’s time to make that optimism a reality. We have a way, and I firmly believe there are enough like-minded people-patients, families, health professionals, business and finance people, academics, mission-driven organizations, whoever-who have the will to make it happen.
Anyone ready to start?