Tackling Cancer: The Current and Upcoming Players

Simply put, cancer statistics are both staggering and disappointing. Based on the National Cancer Institutes' Surveillance Epidemiology and End Results Career Statistics Review, using data from 2007 through 2009, 41.24% of all people within the United States will be diagnosed with some form of cancer in their lifetime. For men, the figure is higher, practically a one-in-two probability.

It's not as if major investment dollars aren't being thrown at cancer research -- because they are -- but the advancements in technology and research often take a decade to hit the market because of the 11-to-14-year development process from lab to marketed drug. We've began to see a positive reversal in deaths per 100,000 people beginning in 1991 as you can see below, but we ultimately need to do better.

Source: National Cancer Institute.

Things are improving, slowly
One factor that's played into these reduced rates is better awareness about the harmful effects of tobacco. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the economic cost of smoking results in 5.1 million years of life lost annually in the United States. The CDC also attributed approximately 443,000 deaths to smoking in the U.S. between 2000 and 2004, with lung cancer accounting for 29% of those deaths and other cancers contributing an additional 8%. 

Source: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Increased awareness by the CDC has gone a long way to educating the public about the long-term harmful effects of smoking. Not surprisingly, Altria (NYSE: MO  ) announced plans in 2011 to reduce its workforce by 15% to counter the effects of slowing cigarette sales. 

However, an even bigger driver in falling cancer rates has been technological advances in the lab, as well as a more accommodative Food and Drug Administration.

I often point toward the falling costs associated with genomics research as a driver of lowering overall research costs and producing faster result turnaround. Last week, I highlighted Life Technologies' (UNKNOWN: LIFE.DL  ) genome sequencing device, which can, for $1,000, sequence a human genome in one day. Still, genome sequencing is currently best targeted for personalized cancer care and hasn't exactly made a huge impact on generalized treatments coming from the biotech sector as of yet.

The biggest driver has been a more accommodative FDA. While I still feel there's a lot of work yet to be done with regard to getting drugs to market faster, certain pathways have been developed to bring life-saving drugs to market faster if there's a large clinically unmet need. Pharmacyclics (UNKNOWN: PCYC.DL  ) and collaborative partner Johnson & Johnson's (NYSE: JNJ  ) Ibrutinib, an experimental drug designed to treat two rare forms of leukemia, was granted the never-before-seen "breakthrough therapy" designation by the FDA this month, which could allow it to be approved based on early stage data alone. 

Tackling cancer
According to the National Cancer Institute, there are 12 types of cancer expected to draw more than 40,000 new diagnoses in the U.S. this year alone:

Cancer Type

Estimated New Cases





Lung (including bronchus)


Colon & Rectal (combined)






Non-Hodgkin Lymphoma




Kidney (renal cell)




Leukemia (all types)




Source: National Cancer Institute. 

Knowing this, and having a soft spot for cancer as I lost my mother to lung cancer in 2010,  I intend to take a deeper dive into the players -- both current and developing -- in these 12 cancer types. Each week over the next 12 weeks, I'll tackle a new type of cancer, beginning next week, and ultimately highlight one or two intriguing plays within the sector and, perhaps, the names to avoid.

Stay tuned as I kick off next week by examining the key current and upcoming players in prostate cancer.

Is bigger really better?
Involved in everything from baby powder to biotech, Johnson & Johnson's critics are convinced that the company is spread way too thin. If you want to know if J&J is nothing but a bloated corporate whale -- or a well-diversified giant that's perfect for your portfolio -- check out The Fool's new premium report outlining the Johnson & Johnson story in terms that any investor can understand. Claim your copy, and a year of free analyst updates, by clicking here now.

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