Looking back at top stories about cancer research in 2021

Wrapping Up 2021: Top 7 Stories About Cancer Research and Cancer Care

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As we near the end of 2021 it’s time for our annual look back at some of the top stories about cancer research and cancer care over the past year.

The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has had a significant impact on cancer research. In the early months of the pandemic, there was a big drop in participation in clinical trials. However, it seems that clinical trials are finally starting to become more patient-friendly out of necessity and this is good news.

These are my picks for seven of the top stories about cancer research and cancer care in 2021–as we look forward to, hopefully, a better year ahead.

1. The National Cancer Institute began a long-overdue effort to collect data on breast cancer recurrence rates.

The NCI announced a new pilot project to begin collecting data on breast cancer recurrences. The eventual goal is include data in the national cancer registry that will inform survivors about their risk for recurrence. Breast cancer advocates had put pressure on the NCI to start counting metastatic recurrences, and a Change.org petition started in 2015 collected about 12,000 signatures.

2. The new targeted drug trastuzumab deruxtecan (Enhertu) markedly lengthened the time that people with metastatic HER2-positive breast cancer lived without their cancer progressing, interim results from a clinical showed.

The DESTINY-Breast03 clinical trial is a head-to-head comparison of Enhertu and trastuzumab emtanzine (Kadcyla), another drug for metastatic HER2-positive breast cancer. Interim results showed a superior response for Enhertu. The FDA had approved Enhertu for metastatic HER2-positive breast cancer in 2019. The drug is also being studied in clinical trials for other types of cancer that overproduce HER2, including lung cancer and stomach cancer.

3. Changes in how clinical trials are conducted are making them much more patient-friendly than they have been in the past.

Enrollment in clinical trials plummeted during the early months of the pandemic, but came back quickly when changes were made to increase flexibility for patients. One of the most significant changes was delivery of medicines directly to a participant’s home or their local clinic. I’ve written about how the pandemic has brought needed changes to clinical trials in this post.

4. The FDA approved abemaciclib (Verzenio) for the treatment of high-risk early stage hormone receptor-positive breast cancer.

This new drug is a CDK 4/6 inhibitor, a type of targeted therapy. The approval was based on findings from the phase 3 monarchE clinical trial. The drug is viewed as providing a new option in the treatment of individuals with high-risk early stage hormone receptor-positive breast cancer to help reduce the risk of recurrence.

5. A vaccine to prevent breast cancer in healthy individuals is expected to begin testing soon in a Phase I clinical trial.

The National Breast Cancer Coalition, in partnership with the Mayo Clinic Cancer Center, is developing a breast cancer vaccine that will ultimately be given to healthy individuals to prevent breast cancer. The experimental vaccine has been developed and a Phase I clinical trial is planned for 2022. I wrote about progress on the vaccine in this post.

6. The drug olaparib (Lynparza) was found to significantly reduce the risk of recurrence for individuals with early stage BRCA-positive breast cancer, based on interim findings from a clinical trial.

Some breast cancer survivors who carry a mutation in the BRCA gene have an increased risk for recurrence, even after completing standard treatment for early stage disease. Interim results from an ongoing clinical trial showed that after 2 1/2 years, women who took olaparib (a twice-daily pill) for a year after completing standard treatment had a 42% reduced risk of recurrence or death.

7. The Patient-Centered Dosing Initiative is questioning the long-standing paradigm that the “right dose” of a cancer medicine is the maximum tolerated dose.

A group of metastatic breast cancer advocates is advocating for a new approach to cancer medicine dosing that is more attuned to the needs of individuals. This approach would take into account the specific situations of the individuals being treated and would focus on sustaining lives while also optimizing the quality of life. I wrote about the initiative in this post.

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