AACR Annual Cancer Progress Report Highlights Scientific Advances Against Cancer, Challenges and Opportunities Ahead
The remarkable progress in medical research—primarily supported by federal investments in the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the National Cancer Institute (NCI)—over the past 3 decades, coupled with advances in prevention and early detection, has led to a 33% reduction in cancer mortality, averting an estimated 3.8 million cancer deaths, according to the American Association for Cancer Research (AACR) Cancer Progress Report 2023: Advancing the Frontiers of Cancer Science and Medicine.1 As a result of NCI-funded clinical trials, since 1980, in the United States, patients with cancer have collectively gained nearly 14 million years of life. The reduction in overall cancer mortality is attributed to declines in the death rates from lung, colorectal, prostate, and female breast cancers, and melanoma, as well as steady decreases in death rates in leukemia and kidney cancer.
Of note, overall cancer death rates in children and -adolescents have declined by 70% and 64%, respectively, between 1970 and 2020, largely driven by improvements in treatment. As a result, since 1971, the number of cancer survivors has risen from 3 million to more than 18 million today.
Included in this year’s report is a spotlight on cancer immunotherapy—the fourth pillar of cancer care. The report also addresses the persistent challenges in cancer research, including cancer disparities; the slow progress against difficult-to-treat cancers such as pancreatic and uterine cancers; and the ongoing physical, psychosocial, and financial hardships cancer survivors face.
Trends and Advances in Cancer Care
Here are several of the highlights of the AACR Cancer Progress Report 2023:
- From August 1, 2022, to July 31, 2023, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved 14 new anticancer therapeutics, including a gene therapy–based immunotherapeutic for certain patients with bladder cancer; a first-in-class antibody-drug conjugate for patients with ovarian cancer; and four T-cell–engaging bispecific antibodies for a variety of hematologic malignancies.
- During this time, the FDA also approved two new imaging agents and expanded the use of 12 previously approved cancer therapeutics for additional cancer types, including an immune checkpoint inhibitor for pediatric and adult patients with a rare type of sarcoma.
- Since 2011, the FDA has approved 11 immune checkpoint inhibitors, many of which are approved for multiple cancer types, making this a treatment option for 20 cancer types and any tumor with certain specific molecular characteristics.
- Since 2017, the FDA has approved six chimeric antigen receptor T-cell therapies to treat hematologic malignancies.
- The field is now expanding with researchers combining the power of other cells in the immune system with recent advances in gene editing to develop more personalized and effective versions of adoptive cell therapy for solid tumors; developing mRNA-based vaccines and cancer therapeutics; and targeting the gut microbiome to increase the efficacy of cancer immunotherapy, among other innovative approaches.
- The remarkable progress in medical research over the past 3 decades, coupled with advances in prevention and early detection, has led to a 33% reduction in cancer mortality, averting an estimated 3.8 million cancer deaths.
- Disparities in cancer care remain, with racial and ethnic minorities and other medically underserved populations shouldering a disproportionally higher burden of cancer and being less likely to receive the standard of care.
- Congress is being asked to support robust, sustained, and predictable annual funding growth for the NIH and the NCI.
Despite these advances, the report recognized the persistent challenges remaining in cancer care, including an estimated nearly 2 million new cancer cases to be diagnosed this year and more than 608,000 people who will die of the disease. Other challenges are listed here:
- Ongoing cancer disparities with racial and ethnic minorities and other medically underserved populations shouldering a disproportionally higher burden of cancer. These patients are also less likely to receive the standard of care. Although advances have been made in identifying, understanding, and addressing some of these disparities, according to the report, more research and policy solutions are urgently needed to ensure equitable progress against cancer.
- There has been uneven progress against different cancer types, for example, pancreatic cancer and glioblastoma, which carry extremely low 5-year survival rates.
- There have been increasing incidence rates for some cancers, including young-onset colorectal cancer, pancreatic cancer, and uterine cancer, in part because of increasing rates of obesity.
- Financial toxicity for cancer survivors is growing. According to the report, in 2029, patients with cancer paid an estimated $16.2 billion in out-of-pocket cancer care costs and lost an additional $5 billion in “time costs.”
Call to Action
To overcome these challenges, the AACR Cancer Progress Report 2023 calls on Congress to support robust, sustained, and predictable annual funding growth for the NIH and NCI by providing increases of at least $3.5 billion and $2.6 billion, respectively, in their fiscal year (FY) 2024 base budgets. According to the report, from 2010 to 2019, NIH funding contributed to the development of 354 of 356 new drugs, including many cancer drugs, approved by the FDA.
The AACR is urging Congress to take the following steps:
- Provide $1.7 billion in dedicated funding for Cancer Moonshot activities in FY 2024 across the NCI, FDA, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), with the assurance that Cancer Moonshot funding will supplement—rather than supplant—NIH funding in FY 2024
- Appropriate at least $472.4 million in FY 2024 appropriations for the CDC Division of Cancer Prevention to support comprehensive cancer control, central cancer registries, and screening and awareness programs for specific cancers
- Allocate $50 million in funding for the Oncology Center of Excellence at the FDA in FY 2024 to allow regulators to have the necessary staff and tools to conduct expedited reviews of cancer-related medical products.
“This 13th unveiling of the AACR Cancer Progress Report continues a world tradition obviously now of trying to raise awareness of the advances and progress that we are making in cancer research
Philip Greenberg, MD, FAACR
and delivering that to patients … to save the lives of patients with cancer,” said Philip Greenberg, MD, FAACR, President of the AACR, during a press briefing announcing the findings in the report. “The progress that has been made is a consequence of federal investment in the NIH, NCI, FDA, and the CDC and is a [testament] of just how effective and critical NIH funding is.”
Formation of AACR Cancer Centers Alliance
During the press conference, Margaret Foti, PhD, MD (hc), Chief Executive Officer of the AACR, announced the formation of the AACR Cancer Centers Alliance, which aims to bring together the nation’s cancer centers with the goal of markedly expanding the scope and impact of world-class cancer institutions to benefit all patients with cancer. The initiative will seek to accelerate the pace of discovery by providing an ongoing mechanism for transferring new knowledge; sharing resources; developing national demonstration projects; and driving innovation that impacts cancer science, cancer care delivery, and science and health policy, according to an article published in Cancer Discovery.2
Margaret Foti, PhD, MD (hc)
The Alliance will initially focus on four main areas of collaboration:
- Basic and translational research
- Clinical research, clinical trials, and regulatory science and policy
- Education; training; professional advancement; and diversity, equity, and inclusion
- Speaking with a unified voice.
“The AACR Alliance, we believe, will become a powerful…force driven by the AACR, and it is an organization and an infrastructure and a collaborative alliance that we as cancer center directors
Cheryl L. Willman, MD
have sought for many years,” said Cheryl L. Willman, MD, Executive Director of the Mayo Clinic Cancer Programs, Director of the Mayo Clinic Comprehensive Cancer Center, and Subgroup Chair of the Alliance, Speaking With a Unified Voice. “We are so honored to be able to work with the AACR to truly achieve that vision.”
1. American Association for Cancer Research: AACR Cancer Progress Report 2023: Advancing the Frontiers of Cancer Science and Medicine. Available at https://cancerprogressreport.aacr.org/progress. Accessed September 26, 2023.
2. Arteaga CL, Cleveland JL, Foti M, et al: AACR Cancer Centers Alliance: Fostering collaboration and innovation to advance lifesaving scientific discoveries for patients. Cancer Discov. September 13, 2023 (early release online).