Targeted therapies contributed to record drop in deaths from cancer, study finds

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Trine K. Tsouderos HRI Regulatory Center Leader, PwC US January 17, 2020

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Drugmakers focusing on cancer, particularly lung cancer, have notched significant wins against the disease, according to a report by the American Cancer Society (ACS). Cancer therapies helped to fuel a 2.2 percent drop in the US cancer death rate from 2016 to 2017 – the largest single-year drop recorded by the ACS.

From 1991 to 2017, the country’s cancer death rate declined by 29 percent, which translates into more than 2.9 million prevented deaths, the ACS reports in “Cancer Statistics, 2020.”

The ACS credited declines in deaths from lung cancer – the top cause of cancer death – to a steady erosion in smoking and advances in early detection and treatment. As of 2017, lung cancer death rates had fallen by 51 percent among males since 1990, its peak, and 26 percent among females since 2002, its peak, with gender differences attributed mostly to tobacco use patterns.

Also playing a role in the record drop were long-term reductions in death rates from the three other most common cancers: colorectal, breast and prostate.

The steepest decline in cancer deaths occurred for melanoma skin cancer. The overall melanoma death rate dropped by 7 percent per year from 2013 to 2017 in people ages 20 to 64, and 5 to 6 percent in people 65 and older, a population in which it had been increasing. The ACS wrote that immunotherapies were a major reason for the dramatic decline in deaths due to melanoma.

The drops in lung cancer and melanoma mortality, enabled partly by better treatments, “are a profound reminder of how rapidly this area of research is expanding, and now leading to real hope for cancer patients,” said Dr. William G. Cance, ACS chief medical and scientific officer.

Additionally, improvements in targeted therapies have helped drive rapid progress against some types of leukemia and lymphoma, the report notes.

HRI impact analysis

Cancer remains the second leading cause of death in the US, after heart disease. The ACS predicts 1.8 million new cases and 606,500 cancer deaths – 1,600 per day – in 2020.

While celebrating the advances made by pharmaceutical companies in the treatment of cancer once it is detected, the ACS also pointed to the role of providers in finding those cancers early and doing all that can be done to prevent them in the first place.

For example, prostate cancer screenings, it wrote, have declined and that could be contributing to a slowing of progress in the fight against that disease. More heavy smokers should be screened for lung cancer, as guidelines recommend. Baby boomers should be screened for hepatitis C, which can be blamed for 25 percent of liver cancer cases.

More people should be vaccinated against the human papillomavirus (HPV), a move that could decrease the incidence and mortality of cervical cancer and cancers of the oral cavity and pharynx associated with HPV. Cervical cancer is the second leading cause of cancer death in women aged 20 to 39, yet about half of adolescent girls haven’t been fully vaccinated.

“Increased investment in both the equitable application of existing cancer control interventions and basic and clinical research to further advance treatment options would undoubtedly accelerate progress against cancer,” the report concludes.

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Trine K. Tsouderos

HRI Regulatory Center Leader, PwC US

Tel: +1 (312) 241 3824

Crystal Yednak

Senior Manager, Health Research Institute, PwC US

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