Drug researchers fete breakthroughs at Capitol

By Elizabeth Stortroen
THE COLORADO STATESMAN

President Obama’s call last month for America to find “a cure for cancer in our time” began to take shape at the Statehouse on Wednesday as the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, a pharmaceutical industry trade association, announced that a record 861 new cancer medicines and vaccines are currently being researched and tested.

Dr. Lia Gore, of the University of Colorado Denver Medical School, left, Meredith Baxter, Rep. Dianne Primavera, Ken Johnson, Senior Vice President, Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America (PhRMA), Lt. Gov. Barbara O’Brien, Dr. Stephen Leong, University of Colorado Denver Medical School and Dr. Ali Shiapush, Amgen Inc.
Photo by Bernard Grant

“Nothing creates more anxiety and fear than the diagnosis of cancer,” said Ken Johnson, senior vice president of PhRMA, at the press conference. “Yet nothing creates more hope than the promise of new medicines.”

Representatives of PhRMA were joined in the announcement by Lt. Gov. Barbara O’Brien, “Family Ties” actress and breast cancer survivor Meredith Baxter, Rep. Dianne Primavera, D-Broomfield, and physicians from around the metro area.

In 2008, PhRMA members invested an estimated $50.3 billion in discovering and developing new medicines to help the almost 570,000 people who die each year in the United States because of cancer.

So, one might be wondering, why did PhRMA choose Denver to answer Obama’s call to cure cancer?

Because, according to Johnson, “Colorado gets it. They understand the importance of this industry and they understand that science drives innovation and innovation drives the economy.”

Johnson said his organization is ready to answer the president’s call.

“We said, ‘Sign us up,’” Johnson said. “We’ll take that rocket ride to the moon with you, and we will stand shoulder to shoulder in the fight against this disease that causes so much pain and suffering to the patients, families and friends.”

The lieutenant governor noted that Colorado companies are developing a number of the new drugs being tested, resulting in a win-win situation for the state.

“Biotechnology in Colorado employs about 60,000 people,” O’Brien said. “It offers great careers to our young people getting out of college and community colleges, and it offers (Colorado) a chance to be a leader in the world to not only prevent, but also treat these diseases that attack the human body.”

According to the National Cancer Institute, cancer is the second leading cause of death in the U.S., with more than 1,500 Americans expected to die daily from the disease. In Colorado, 2008 brought an estimated 18,900 new cancer cases and 6,700 cancer deaths.

Meredith Baxter, center, speaks while Rep. Dianne Primavera, left, and Lt. Gov. Barbara O’Brien, right, stand behind her during the press conference.
Photo by Bernard Grant

The 861 new medicines and vaccines developed are being tested either in clinical trials or under the Food and Drug Administration review.

Of the medicines created to eliminate the most common cancers, 122 target lung cancer, the deadliest cause of cancer death in the country; 107 target breast cancer; 103 target prostate cancer, and 70 target colorectal cancer.

Billy Tauzin, president and CEO of PhRMA, said he is one of the patients who was diagnosed with cancer and was given a new medical treatment that has allowed him to continue living his life.

“The men and women working for America’s pharmaceutical research companies are committed to developing new cancer medicines that, one day, could eradicate cancer all together,” he said.

Doctors from around the metro area spoke about the hope that America’s pharmaceutical research and biotechnology companies are giving to patients through their new cancer medicines and vaccines.

Dr. Stephen Leong, a medical oncologist at the University of Colorado Hospital, said clinical trials with new medicines can provide patients and researchers firsthand accounts to see if the drug is working to combat the cancer and, if so, how it is working.

“In cancer research we are learning more about how cancer cells grow, how they survive and how they are able to spread to the rest of the body,” said Leong. “I am excited to develop these new drugs because we need to build upon the momentum we have generated so far and we need to continue to build upon the knowledge that we have.”

Leong said that through his observations in clinical trials at the hospital, he has seen patients with cancer who have been told they have six months to live, still surviving three years later because of the clinical trials they participated in.

Primavera, a four-time cancer survivor, also spoke at the press conference and said she is excited for the new research and testing toward cancer medicines and vaccines. She said her fight has now moved from physically battling cancer in her own body, to fighting cancer at the political level.

“I am happy to be at the Capitol fighting cancer in the political arena now,” said Primavera, who has sponsored several bills regarding to cancer and research.

One of her most recent bills this session, House Bill 1059, which passed its third reading in the Senate on March 16, requires insurance companies to cover the cost of routine treatments for clients who choose to enroll in clinical trials.

“Researchers are making exciting progress in the search for new cures and treatments for cancer,” Johnson said. “We recognize this is going to be difficult, but this is a battle that we have to win and we must win.

“Today’s researchers are part of the pioneers that will hopefully take us to an era when we simply treat cancer, to an era where we can cure cancer,” he said.

Beth@coloradostatesman.com