Fighting Cancer in a Year Like No Other

Pictured (L-R), AACR CEO Margaret Foti, PhD, MD (hc); 2019-20 AACR President Elaine Mardis, PhD, AFFAR; and 2020-21 AACR President Antoni Ribas, MD, PhD, FAACR

In the lead-up to their April meeting, the American Association for Cancer Research (AACR) released their annual report outlining progress made during a year of unprecedented challenges. With a mission to prevent and cure all cancers through research, education, communication, collaboration, research funding and policy and advocacy, the AACR highlighted breakthroughs across the spectrum of cancer care.

Last year, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved 19 new therapeutics to treat various forms of cancer and green lighted another 14 previously approved therapeutics for treating new types of cancer. The AACR annual report noted: "Remarkable advances in our understanding of the biology of cancer, including the identification of numerous genetic mutations that fuel tumor growth in certain patients, are continuing to drive the development of new therapeutics that target specific molecules involved in cancer. 16 of the 19 new therapeutics approved in 2020 belong to this category of molecularly targeted therapeutics."

Immunotherapy is another area of rapid expansion. In 2020, one groundbreaking application of immunotherapy targeted solid tumors that are characterized by the presence of the specific biomarker tumor mutational burden-high (TMB-h). The discovery and subsequent approval allows certain adult and children with tumors characterized by this biomarker to receive treatment with pembrolizumab. Such targeted therapies, which are part of the evolution of precision medicine, continue to improve survival times and quality of life after a cancer diagnosis.

"In the next 10 years, I expect that scientific discoveries will ignite another revolution in cancer treatment and further improve outcomes for patients with cancer," said 2020-21 AACR President Antoni Ribas, MD, PhD in the AACR Cancer Progress Report 2020.

During 2020, the organization held their annual meeting virtually across two sessions in April and again in late June. Among the advances highlighted across 170 clinical trial presentations, special attention was given to immune checkpoint inhibitors and combination therapies. While immune checkpoint inhibitors have yielded unprecedented long-term responses across numerous cancer types, not all patients respond to the immunotherapy and many who respond initially come to develop treatment resistance over time. The April 2020 meeting looked at three specific trials that used an immune checkpoint inhibitor in combination with a targeted therapeutic to assess patient benefit and/or delay to treatment resistance. While two of the trials indicated improvement, a third had to be halted when the combination trial resulted in slightly poorer results than the current standard of care. The varying outcomes highlight the need for continued research to establish which combinations and in what dosages could ultimately improve outcomes.

Despite successes during 2020, the organization also recognized new and persisting barriers that have hampered access to care and cutting-edge research. The new barrier came in the form of COVID-19 as clinical care and research struggled to maintain momentum in the face of lockdowns. AACR took meetings and educational workshops online for virtual offerings where possible but logistics made it impossible to hold the full slate of planned programming. The AACR Scientific Publishing program also moved quickly to ensure researchers had continued access to key information as facilities around the world began shutting down in the wake of the rapidly spreading virus. By May, the organization had formed a COVID-19 and Cancer Task Force, chaired by Ribas, to set priorities and develop new AACR initiatives to address the pandemic.

A persisting barrier the organization made strides in addressing is the ongoing racial inequality in cancer research. Last fall, AACR released a first-of-its-kind disparities progress report focused on outcomes and clinical trial participation for racial minorities. While research is making great strides in the fight against cancer, AACR leadership noted the grim reality is that everyone hasn't benefited equally. For more than four decades, black Americans have had the highest overall cancer death rate of any racial group in the United States.

Although the landmark report was new in 2020, AACR CEO Margaret Foti, PhD, MD (hc), noted work in this area has been ongoing. "Health disparities in general, and cancer health disparities in particular, are an enormous public health challenge," she said. "While the pandemic has highlighted and sadly exacerbated many of these issues, confronting and addressing health inequities has been a high priority for the AACR for decades."

Minorities in Cancer Research (MICR) celebrated its 20th anniversary in 2020 and has increased participation by minority researchers in the field of cancer. "Diversity and inclusion in our field are important for accelerating the pace of progress against cancer, and a lack of racial diversity in both the cancer research and healthcare workforce is one of the major factors contributing to cancer health disparities," Foti said.

While still unacceptably high, the overall cancer death rate among racial and ethnic groups compared to white patients dropped nearly 20 points between 1990 to 2016. Still, minority groups continue to face an overall death rate 14 percent higher than their white counterparts. Yet, several recent studies have shown the effectiveness of tailored outreach and patient navigation, while others have focused on completely eliminating disparities by creating equal access to standard of care. The goal of the new disparities progress report and member committees focused on the issue is to map out a strategic plan to harness momentum and hasten equal access to clinical trials and community care.

Founded with 11 members in May 1907, today the AACR is the largest cancer research organization with more than 48,000 members, including 53 Nobel laureates, across 127 countries and territories. Members include laboratory, translational and clinical researchers, along with other healthcare professionals and advocates. To review the full annual report, go online to

Mark Your Calendar

AACR Annual Meeting 2021

Virtual Meeting

Week 1: April 10-15

Week 2: May 17-21

For registration and information, go online to


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