A number of therapies designed to treat patients with lung cancer have been approved this year, including products from Novartis (NYSE:NVS), Merck (NYSE:MRK) and Bristol-Myers Squibb (NYSE:BMY). That progress is exciting for Dr. Fred Hirsch, the head of the International Association for the Study of Lung Cancer.
“We do have a lot of good things to tell the public these days – that tremendous progress has happened both in terms of early detection, lung cancer screening and foremost, the treatment of patients with advanced lung cancer,” he told Drug Delivery Business News.
The milestones reached by industry and researchers within the last few years are largely rooted in a better understanding of the biology of lung cancer, according to Hirsch, which has translated into the development of personalized therapies for individual patients.
“Now, we are looking into the patient’s tumor characteristics and designing a treatment according to the biological features in the tumor,” he explained. “For patients with advanced lung cancer, one or two decades ago there weren’t many options for those patients. But all of a sudden, we have a lot of options to offer and everything is based on a better molecular understanding of what is going on in the tumor.”
But, he noted, despite all of the exciting developments made in the last year, researchers and society still have a long way to go. While patients with advanced cancer have benefited from recent approvals, that progress has not translated for patients with early-stage disease. Lung cancer is also still largely associated with smoking, which Hirsch pointed out can be hurtful to patients and to funding opportunities for researchers.
“Unfortunately, we are still dealing with a stigma. That is one of the things that we are trying to overcome through the Lung Cancer Awareness Month Coalition and through our messages. Because unfortunately, lung cancer has been associated with heavy smoking and only heavy smoking, but that is not the truth anymore. Everyone can get lung cancer, and we see more and more never-smokers, as well as younger patients,” he said.
Part of the problem is that researchers don’t have a good understanding as to why lung cancer is prevalent among people who have never smoked, Hirsch acknowledged. But the bottom line, he said, is that anyone can get lung cancer.
“The previous stigma is not justified these days. It has been a huge limitation for us having this stigma hanging over the heads. It has been terrible for the patients, for the patients’ families. They feel guilty and the stigma of a man-made disease has really been damaging, not only for the patients but also for the lung cancer community,” Hirsch said.
Research funding for lung cancer still lags behind compared to other cancers, like breast cancer, and Hirsch believes this has partly to do with the smoking stigma. He added that it’s tough to create patient groups to rally for funding when there aren’t enough long-term survivors to act as advocates.
Looking ahead, Hirsch explained that he hopes to see more innovative treatment options for patients with early-stage disease, as well as a more thorough implementation of screening among patients in well-defined risk groups.
Another problem hindering forward-momentum in lung cancer treatment – “disappointingly low accrual” to clinical trials, Hirsch noted.
“We are talking 3% or 4% of patients going into clinical trials and in some states it’s even worse than that. We need to do something. We can only make progress through clinical trials and we need to help patients and doctors and healthcare personnel understand the importance of clinical trials,” he added.