Cancer Treatment Centers of America

Concerns about innovative cancer treatments versus commercial interests

Maurie Markman, MD,
markman concerning intersection

News reports over the past several months have highlighted highly encouraging reports of a novel “gene therapy” strategy in the treatment of children with acute lymphocytic leukemia.

While great success has occurred over the last several decades in improving the survival outcome of children found to have this difficult cancer, if the malignancy is found to progress after delivery of standard chemotherapy treatments (including bone marrow transplantation), the prognosis has been dire.

The novel treatment discussed in these reports involves taking the patient’s own immune cells, altering them in the laboratory to potentially be able to effectively attack/kill the leukemia cells, and to then return the immune cells to the patient. In a small group of very advanced leukemia patients reported at several cancer meetings and in the oncology literature, the majority of these individuals have achieved a complete remission (no evidence of cancer in the body) with this clinical status continuing for extended periods of time (so far, measured in “several” years).

This exciting research has been conducted at a number of academic cancer centers around the United States. As anticipated, several companies have begun plans to rapidly develop this experimental concept into a commercial product that will hopefully be available to a far larger number of patients being managed outside the very narrow confines of a “clinical trial.”

Unfortunately, and as an example of an increasingly worrisome trend in the development of novel cancer strategies, several groups involved in these early developmental efforts are now suing each other, claiming “rights” to commercialize this strategy.

While it is recognized it is essential for a company to achieve an adequate profit from the successful development of a product that benefits cancer patients, one wonders how much time and effort is lost, to the clear detriment of prospective patients based on the intense, costly, and often lengthy legal battles of the companies.

For those of us whose sole goal is to improve the outcome (duration and quality of life) of our patients, seeing such effort spent on legal battles instead of battling the cancer is disconcerting.

Is there not a better way to deal with these commercial issues so we can get these innovative treatments to cancer patients?