The headline in the Washington Post caught my eye: “Fighting a smarter war on cancer,” [sorry, you must register to read the article] an opinion piece by Dr. John Marshall, a faculty member at the Lombardi Cancer Center in Georgetown. It is about the intersection between health care reform and cancer care - it seemed like just the thing to read while drinking my morning coffee. But halfway through the article I found myself feeling marginalized, and that got me thinking. Although Dr. Marshall makes some good points, I think he missed a golden opportunity to propose changes that could make a real difference in our lifetimes.
How did Dr. Marshall make me feel marginalized? He wrote the following about chemotherapy:
“The most common approach to treatment involves exposing large populations of patients to highly toxic poisons in the hopes that the treatment will kill the cancer cells and not the patient. This strategy has succeeded with several types of less-common cancers, curing some patients with leukemia, lymphoma, testicular cancer and most childhood cancers [emphasis is mine]. But it has not worked for more common forms of the disease, including breast, prostate, lung, colon, pancreas, stomach and ovarian cancers. These cancers represent an enormous public health problem, consuming the majority of our cancer-specific health-care costs and research dollars.”
I realize that childhood cancer is rare, and that to make an impact on the total health care system in our country will require real progress against such public health menaces as breast and lung cancer. However, I believe that rather than brushing aside the approach that transformed childhood cancer from a death sentence to a treatable disease, the medical oncology world needs to embrace it.
Most oncologists know this, but in a single generation, collaborative clinical research in pediatric oncology, exemplified now by the Children’s Oncology Group, has revolutionized the way childhood cancer is treated in this country. Once uniformly fatal, there are now some types of childhood cancer that are cured 95% of the time. This transformation did not come about by chance. It came about because of a culture change that is now a huge gulf between pediatric oncology and medical oncology: the role of the clinical trial.
Dr. Marshall hints at this in his article: “In cancer medicine, fewer than 5 percent of all patients in the United States enter clinical trials. That means more than 95 percent are treated with the ‘standard of care’ -- a legal term denoting a minimum level of care for an ill or injured person.” In contrast, being entered on a clinical trial IS the standard of care in pediatric oncology. Partly this is born out of necessity – childhood cancer is rare enough that unless nearly every child with cancer is treated on a trial, not enough patients can be studied to yield reliable results, making progress impossible.
The cultural difference in the view of clinical trials between medical and pediatric oncology is readily apparent in my every day practice, particularly when I have to approach an insurance company about enrolling a patient of mine on a trial. In the “adult” world, a clinical trial is something offered when there is nothing “standard” to offer, just as Dr. Marshall implies. What this means is that insurance companies often feel justified in denying coverage for trials, since these are “experimental therapies” and “not standard.” In the “pediatric” world, everyone goes on a clinical trial. Coverage is routine, because the trial IS the standard.
Dr. Marshall makes an excellent point about where the future of cancer therapy lies. He believes, as do I, that the future is in “personalized medicine,” meaning treatments that are individualized for each patient, based on the molecular and cellular composition of their individual cancer. Unfortunately, therein lies the problem. In the world of “personalized medicine,” there will be no standard. What works for Patient A will not necessarily help Patient B. Destruction of the concept of “standard of care” in oncology will make coverage decisions by insurance companies far more complex. This will need to be accounted for as we move towards a reformed health insurance system.
More importantly, demonstrating the value of “personalized medicine” will require more clinical trials. Only by enrolling patients in such trials, painstakingly dissecting the molecular changes in each patient’s tumor, and carefully proving that tailoring therapy based on these changes dramatically improves outcomes can real progress be made. Because these molecular changes will, by definition, vary widely from patient to patient, treating only 5% of adults with cancer on clinical trials will never get us to where we need to be. The medical oncology world needs to learn from the successes of pediatric oncology. Being treated on a clinical trial needs to be the standard, not something that is reserved for use when “standard of care” fails.
Instead of marginalizing pediatric oncology, hold our system up as the model. Only then will real progress be made in the war on cancer.
Is the Medical Community Complicit?