A Message from the AACR

This is an uncertain time for everyone around the world, including those of us working in the field of cancer science and medicine and the patients and families who rely on us. There has been remarkable progress against cancer over the past few decades; in the United States overall cancer incidence and death rates are declining steadily and the number of children and adults who are surviving longer after a cancer diagnosis has been increasing. However, our ability to continue the current pace of progress is in jeopardy because of the enormous global public health challenge posed by the Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic.

The AACR Cancer Progress Report 2020 provides a comprehensive overview of the breakthroughs in cancer care that are being made because of medical research, much of which is supported by federal investments in the National Institutes of Health (NIH). As highlighted in the report, bipartisan leadership in Congress that has delivered five consecutive years of robust annual funding increases for the NIH has sparked a new wave of scientific discovery and technological innovation. This has increased our basic scientific understanding of the complexities of cancer and accelerated the rate at which this knowledge is being harnessed to develop new and better approaches to preventing, detecting, diagnosing, treating, and curing cancer.

In the past year, we have brought a record number of scientific advances to patients with cancer in the form of new treatments for their particular diseases. Among the 20 new treatments that were approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in the 12 months covered in this report are 16 molecularly targeted therapeutics that are part of the precision medicine revolution in cancer care. The surge in the number of molecularly targeted therapeutics is being fueled by discoveries in the field of cancer genomics wrought by multidisciplinary teams of researchers. One caveat is that thus far, most cancer genomics data come from individuals of Western European ancestry. To ensure that precision medicine benefits every cancer patient, including individuals from racial and ethnic minorities and other underserved populations, it is imperative that we increase our knowledge of cancer genomics in these populations. Many of the steps needed to enhance diversity in cancer science and medicine, including in cancer genomics, are described in the inaugural AACR Cancer Disparities Progress Report, which was unveiled at a congressional briefing on September 16, 2020.

The rapid expansion in the use of checkpoint inhibitors, which are immunotherapeutics that work by releasing the brakes on natural cancer-fighting immune cells called T cells, is continuing unabated. Five of these transformative therapeutics were approved in the past 12 months for treating additional types of cancer, and one was approved for treating cancer based solely on the presence of a specific genetic biomarker rather than the site of origin. Facilitating the convergence of expertise from an increasingly diverse array of disciplines, such as mathematics, physics, chemistry, engineering, and computer science, will allow us to make even more pioneering advances in immunotherapy, providing new hope for many more patients with cancer.

Despite the significant progress we are making against cancer, there is a vital need for continued transformative research. This urgency is underscored by the sobering reality that cancer will claim more than one life every minute of every day in the United States this year. This number is predicted to grow considerably in the coming decades largely because of overall population growth and because of growth of the segment of the U.S. population age 65 and older—the population most at risk for cancer.

At the start of 2020, we were in a strong position to make major strides toward the goal of preventing and curing all types of cancer. Unfortunately, the global health crisis caused by the COVID-19 pandemic has impeded the positive momentum against cancer. There is grave concern that the delays in cancer screening, diagnosis, and treatment caused by the pandemic will have significant negative effects on outcomes for patients. There is particularly high concern for racial and ethnic minorities and other underserved populations because these groups already experience cancer health disparities and are now shouldering a disproportionate burden of COVID-19. Racial and ethnic disparities in COVID-19 as well as the recently witnessed inhumanities against people of color have refocused the nation’s attention on stark inequities in health care, and it is critical for everyone to play a role in eradicating the social injustices that are barriers to health equity.

The COVID-19 pandemic has created many challenges for cancer research, with laboratories shuttered temporarily or refocused to work on COVID-19-related projects. While it is imperative that cancer researchers contribute their unique expertise to combat the unprecedented global pandemic, we must not forget that there are many patients with cancer who are urgently awaiting more effective treatment options.

Ensuring that medical research remains a priority for our nation’s policy makers is absolutely essential if we are to maintain the momentum against cancer, fuel the economy, and help the United States to retain its important position as the global leader in medical research. Therefore, the AACR urges Congress to continue to support annual funding increases that are robust, sustained, and predictable for the NIH, NCI, FDA, and CDC. These actions will keep us on the path of making lifesaving progress for patients with cancer around the world.