Eli Lilly and Co. announced an invention Thursday and it wasn’t a new drug.
The Indianapolis-based pharmaceutical company has created a database to track progress on cancer treatments in the hope that it leads to better policy decisions about how treatments can be advanced.
The database shows, for example, the steps that led to the point where 95 percent of men diagnosed with testicular cancer can be cured. It also shows how progress tends to cluster in certain areas and how treatments combine to produce better results. But Lilly officials say the main takeaway is that progress comes in small steps.
“I want to challenge some common, but misleading, assumptions about progress against cancer,” said Lilly CEO John Lechleiter, “namely that it moves forward in large leaps and bounds and that there is likely to be a big breakthrough.”
Lechleiter came to Washington to announce the online database because it’s aimed at policymakers and advocacy groups. The database, which is available to organizations by request, is not intended to be used by doctors to guide treatment decisions.
“Our targets are squarely on the cancer policy community,” said Lilly’s Gary Geipel. “It is very effective in highlighting gaps and unmet needs.”
The House Energy and Commerce Committee is working on legislation to accelerate medical breakthroughs. And President Barack Obama on Friday is fleshing out details of a project he recently announced to “to bring us closer to curing diseases like cancer and diabetes.”
There are various public and private efforts to evaluate whether treatment advances are “clinically meaningful” or provide a good value for the cost.
Lechleiter said such efforts could stifle the “continuous-innovation process.”
“You hear discussions in public space every day about whether a one- or two-month survival time for a new cancer drug is meaningful. I would hope they’ve asked the person who stands to benefit from it whether they think it’s meaningful,” he said. “But what (the database) shows us, and what many of us have been arguing all along, is that when building the building, you have to have bricks stacked on top of one another.”
Lilly’s involvement in cancer treatments substantially increased after its 2008 acquisition of the cancer biotech firm ImClone Systems. Its top-selling product is now the cancer drug Alimta.
About three years ago, the company created an initiative called PACE (Patient Access to Cancer care Excellence), to speed up research and development in cancer treatment through policy changes. The company kept running up against the question of why most progress in cancer treatment seems to be lengthening the number of weeks a patient can survive, rather than coming up with a cure.
So Lilly decided to develop the database to show how treatment has advanced for 12 cancers.
“We see it as offering useful clues for groups that are advocating for progress against specific types of cancer,” said Geipel, who heads PACE. “We felt our success as a business that was going to be increasingly engaged in cancer treatment depended in a significant extent in recognition by policymakers and others that this step-wise progress against cancer was significant and was going to continue to be the way forward.”
Lechleiter said the policy changes that would help advance cancer treatment include speeding up clinical trials, increasing their participation rates, and increasing patent protections.
For example, Lilly has hundreds of molecules off patent that it’s not likely to try to develop for new uses because there’s no patent protection. By contrast, Lilly spent hundreds of millions of dollars on clinical trials to show that its drug Gemzar initially introduced to treat pancreatic cancer was also effective on lung and breast cancer. That’s because it was able to gain approval for those uses before the drug’s patent expired.
“Treatments often need time to demonstrate what they can do,” Lechleiter
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