Something remarkable is happening in cancer: Survival rates are climbing. After 20 years of painstaking work, a new generation of bioengineered drugs are reaching patients. Study after study finds that they are keeping some patients alive longer, without the horrible side effects of chemotherapy. At least 400 new cancer drugs are in development, vs. less than 10 a decade ago. "Let's say 1% to 2% of those make it to the market in the next one to two years," says Dr. Gabriel N. Hortobagyi, a leading oncologist at M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston. "That's seven to eight new drugs. That's huge!"
As today's cancer advances can attest, biomedical research is in its golden era. A process that started with the discovery of DNA's structure in 1953, through the creation of the first bioengineered antibodies in 1975 and the deciphering of the human genome in 2001, is finally changing the course of medicine. Genentech Inc. (DNA) just announced that Lucentis, its experimental drug for macular degeneration, the main cause of blindness in the elderly, stabilized or improved vision in 95% of patients. There are two vaccines in advanced development against the human papillomavirus, carried by 20 million Americans. A diet drug called Accomplia may be approved next year that can not only help people lose weight but also quit smoking and lower their cholesterol. And genetic tests should soon be available to pinpoint patients at increased risk of heart disease before symptoms develop.
It's worth noting that many of these advances were considered a waste of energy by plenty of scientists -- and Wall Street -- at one time or another. Indeed, Dr. Judah Folkman, who developed the theory behind Lucentis, spent decades trying to win over naysayers. The first drugs based on monoclonal antibodies barely got funding in the early 1990s; today, they're among the most successful new cancer medicines. Progress in science is often frustratingly slow. But the recent successes are proof that real innovation is worth the wait.