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Institute to Bring New Hope for Better Cancer Drugs

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At MD Anderson, we continue to focus on improving the effectiveness of cancer treatments for our patients.

Today, with the announcement of the new Institute for Applied Cancer Science (IACS), we intend to develop a more robust process for testing new cancer targets and drugs. The institute will make that possible by accelerating the translation of scientific discoveries into new, safe and effective drugs for cancer patients.

In 2011, we reached the 40th anniversary of the landmark National Cancer Act, heralded in when President Richard Nixon declared a "war on cancer" in 1971 and increased the federal dollars devoted to winning that war.

While far too many people still die from cancer, real progress has been made. Between 1990 and 2007, death rates in the United States for all cancers combined decreased by 22% for men and 14% for women. This means that 898,000 fewer people died from cancer during this time period (American Cancer Society, Facts & Figures, 2011).

Leaky pipeline for new drugs

This progress we've achieved in curbing cancer death rates is a direct result of ongoing drug discovery and development, an incredibly time-consuming and expensive endeavor.

According to statistics from the American Association for Cancer Research, completing the clinical trials and getting Food and Drug Administration approval for every cancer drug that makes it into the clinic takes more than seven years and $1 billion.

Clearly, the traditional path to new cancer treatments rarely produced the ultimate goal: a safe and effective new drug broadly available to patients.

As cumbersome as this process has been, it is now facing a looming crisis, due to the economic realities of the last few years.

Traditionally, pharmaceutical and biotechnology companies have been the driving economic engines behind bringing new drugs to market. Unfortunately, many pharmaceutical companies have downsized their internal research programs and are instead investing in licensing drugs from biotech firms that have done the early testing.

However, the recent economic downturn has led to a historic low in the creation of new biotech firms. In other words, after two decades of booming activity in drug development, we have now hit a massive slowdown. In 2009, only four new cancer drugs were approved in the United States.

Institute reinvents cancer drug development

MD Anderson believes that we must take a leadership position in accelerating the process of getting a viable drug from the laboratory to the bedside. The place to start is in the laboratory, where a variety of forces are beginning to converge that will allow us to make radical improvements in cancer drug development. That is where the Institute for Applied Cancer Science comes in.

Rather than relying solely on the creation of new biotech firms and the whims of the pharmaceutical industry, the institute will serve as an intermediary partner. It will be staffed with expert professional scientists, rather than academic researchers.

Instead of pursuing discoveries that lead to grants and publications, they will be focused on the extensive work required to fully explore new drug targets. The result will be to produce more effective results in clinical trials.

We've seen dramatic improvements in our understanding of cancer -- its complex biology, the unique genetics of each person's cancer, and how cancer cells react, given that person's individual genetic makeup.

We also know more about the network of factors that enable cancers to form, survive and spread.

As this ever-deepening knowledge intersects with technological leaps, we will create in the institute an environment capable of making significant strides in our fight against cancer.

On the other hand, MD Anderson is not, and never plans to be, a pharmaceutical company. Instead, this institute will enable us to forge close collaborations between our academic scientists and pharmaceutical company experts.

We will enhance the work of biotech firms by generating exciting basic science focused on cancer targets. That basic science will be further developed in biotech arenas, and after being honed and improved back at the institute, will then be given to pharmaceutical companies for final development.

In other words, the IACS will serve as a catalyst to really push discoveries forward faster as they move through the pipeline. We will see another dramatic shift in the cancer death rate numbers, as more cancer patients have access to new and improved treatments and cures.

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