Is the bar set too low for new cancer drugs?

In an attempt to illustrate just how hard it is to treat cancer, New York Times' biotech scribe Andrew Pollack turns to an analogy that most of his hometown readers can relate to instantly. "There are so many aberrant molecules in a tumor," he writes, "that blocking just one or two is like trying to stop all traffic in Manhattan with a roadblock at a single intersection."

But that hasn't stopped cancer from becoming the hot spot in drug development. If anything, the intricate cancer grid is attracting a growing number of would-be traffic cops. According to the statisticians at PhRMA, there are now 860 cancer drugs in clinical trials, and Pollack notes that that is twice the number of experimental therapies for heart disease and stroke combined.

The incredible complexity of cancer is one reason for the explosion of new drugs. The disease has to be attacked along a variety of pathways in order to have any significant effect. That creates plenty of drug targets for developers. The FDA has proven willing to approve new oncology drugs based on marginal, often tiny, gains in survival rates. But money has a lot to do with it as well. Cancer patients have proven quite willing to pay large sums every month for treatments, and insurers are often unwilling to endure the backlash that any reimbursement denials would earn. That's one reason why 20 of the world's 126 blockbuster therapies are for cancer.

Cancer's popularity in the development world, though, is also generating a backlash from experts who believe that setting the bar too low for drug developers is now preventing researchers from concentrating their efforts where it would do the most good.

- read the article from the New York Times