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Advances in Cancer Research and Treatment in 2020

By Louis J. DeGennaro, Ph.D., LLS President and CEO | December 30, 2019

Progress in new cancer treatments is accelerating so rapidly that the standard of care for many cancer patients is changing right before our very eyes.

Since 2017, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has approved a remarkable 53 therapies just to treat patients with blood cancers, and The Leukemia & Lymphoma Society (LLS) has helped advance 46 of these treatments.

I have no reason to believe the next few years won’t be as productive and groundbreaking as the last few. With that, here are some of my predictions for 2020:

CAR T-cell Immunotherapy Continues to Amaze

Revolutionary advances in harnessing the body’s immune system to seek out and destroy cancer cells, is creating excitement about chimeric antigen receptor (CAR) T-cell immunotherapy, a treatment that engineers the patient’s own cells to fight cancer.  While the treatment is currently FDA approved for two types of cancer - acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL) and large B-cell lymphoma - I predict we will see CAR-T approved this year for patients with mantle cell lymphoma and multiple myeloma. Compelling data for both of these blood cancers was presented at the American Society of Hematology meeting in December.  I’m especially excited about so called “off-the-shelf immunotherapy” that doesn’t require engineering individual patients’ T cells, making manufacture of these cells less costly and time consuming.

More Precision Medicine/Less Chemotherapy

Precision medicine - giving patients a drug based on their molecular profile rather than taking a one-size-fits-all approach - is showing great promise in acute myeloid leukemia (AML) and chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL).  While chemotherapy, drugs that directly kill cells, remains an important component of many treatment regimens, I predict we will see less reliance on these types of drugs as more targeted therapies, drugs that work by interfering with molecules that help drive cancer growth, gain approval.

More Help for Children with Cancer

For too long we’ve been treating children with acute leukemia with the same protocols developed more than 30 years ago. While most children with ALL survive with treatment, the harsh chemotherapy combinations leave many with lasting side effects. We can and will do better for these children. With the success of our Beat AML Master Clinical Trial, a precision medicine study for adults with AML, we are now planning a global precision medicine trial for children with AML. To develop new therapies for the 40% of children and young adults who don’t respond to treatment, we aim to launch our trial – LLS PedAL – in the summer of 2020.

As well, we’ve more than doubled our commitment to pediatric research grants, new services for children with cancer and their families, including our best-in-class Information Resource Center and Clinical Trials Support services, with trained medical specialists ready to help patients, families and caregivers navigate a cancer diagnosis and treatment, including enrolling in an appropriate clinical trial.

More Collaborations to Help More Patients

LLS is a global leader in the fight against cancer but we can’t do it alone. Nonprofit, government, industry and the business sector all must work together to solve big problems.

LLS is a trusted convener, and we will continue to facilitate collaboration across partners such as consumer companies such as Walgreens and Burlington, pharma and bio companies such as Bristol-Myers Squibb, Pfizer and Johnson & Johnson, professional organizations such as The American Society of Hematology (ASH) and Milken Faster Cures, and the Paul G. Allen Frontiers Group and The Mark Foundation for Cancer Research, to fund cutting edge research to advance more breakthrough, novel cancer treatments in 2020.

Improving Access to Treatments and Care

All of the scientific progress doesn’t mean a thing if patients can’t access the treatments. One of LLS’s priorities is increasing participation in clinical trials and we will continue to approach this challenge from many directions in 2020.

Our collaboration with ASH will help inform more patients about appropriate clinical trials. As well, we will be awarding grants under a new program called IMPACT (Impactful Medicine Providing Access to Clinical Trials), to expand access to high-quality clinical trials to patients served by community-based sites of care, particularly rural, minority, and/or economically disadvantaged blood cancer patients.

We will continue to collaborate with all of the players in the healthcare ecosystem to attack the high cost of cancer care for patients. Financial toxicity and quality of life will be the focus of new research with patients at the center.

We aim to get two policies on the president’s desk by late May - a cap on out-of-pocket costs to patients in Medicare Part D, along with an initiative known as “smoothing,” which would spread out the cost to patients in Medicare so they are not hit with a very high upfront payment.   

On the state level, we are fighting back against “junk plans” in 13 states. These insurance plans don’t adequately provide coverage, particularly for patients with preexisting conditions. We will be issuing a study in February showing the impact of these plans.

As you can see, we’ve got our work cut out for us in 2020 and we’ll all need to stay focused as we deliver our mission for patients and families.