Opinion

Sunrise in South Dakota

Last year, I met a South Dakotan who’d been diagnosed with late stage lung cancer back in 2009. A non-smoker, he was told by his doctors that the average life expectancy for a patient like him wasn’t more than five years – probably even less. Six years of treatment later and in remission, Matt smiled and shrugged, saying, “I’m not average.”

No patient is, each exceptional in their genetic makeup and in the way their body responds to both disease and treatment. And Matt and his fellow American patients – and their courageous fights – are why my time as president and CEO of the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America has been so rewarding.

The numbers we’re seeing today are truly astounding.

Since peaking in 1991, cancer death rates are down by 22 percent, while the 5-year survival rate has increased 39 percent across all cancers.  Thanks to advancements in research and development, 99 percent of patients with early detected melanoma will survive, and the first vaccine for the prevention of cervical cancer is now reaching patients. HIV/AIDS, which once cast a lethal shadow across the nation and world, is now considered by many to be a manageable chronic condition. Hepatitis C – the leading cause of liver transplants and the reason why liver cancer is on the rise – is now curable in more than 90 percent of treated patients.

This kind of progress – Matt’s kind of progress – is only possible thanks to continued, long-term investment, the unyielding belief in great American innovation, and rational policies that allow both to flourish.

Since 2000, America’s biopharmaceutical companies have poured more than $600 billion into the research, development and delivery of potential new medicines – including more than $51.2 billion invested in 2014 alone. But this is the level of investment needed at a time when it takes more than ten years of R&D and more than $2.6 billion to get a single new drug to market – a cost that has doubled over the last decade. This is driven, in part, by the reality of failure, in that most potential treatments don’t make it past clinical trials. For example, between 1998 and 2014, 167 potential lung cancer medicines failed in clinical testing, while just 10 were approved – a 6 percent rate of success.

Still, the investment continues because progress like Matt’s can be so profound and rewarding, helping to feed a burgeoning global pipeline that now has more than 7,000 potential new medicines in clinical trials or awaiting Food and Drug Administration review – more than at any time in modern medical history. One of those could benefit the next Matt – or a thousand Emilys, Sophies and Jacks in Oregon, Georgia and New Mexico – and continued rational policymaking can extend this upward trend.

It gets colder as the sun dips down earlier in the Mount Rushmore State right now. But Matt’s horizon forecasts sunnier days. “If I can live another three years, I’ll end up living another thirty years,” he says. “The pace at which these innovations are happening in cancer research is at the fastest rate that it has ever been.”

Continued progress needs to happen quickly because Matt is not average. No patient ever is. Let’s keep up the pace.

John J. Castellani served as president and CEO of the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America (PhRMA) from 2010 to 2015.

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