In early 2016, the American Cancer Society released its annual “Cancer Statistics” report. The ensuing headlines in numerous media outlets broadcast the overwhelmingly positive conclusions: “Cancer Death Rates On the Decline in the U.S.”

Complex picture

Yet, we’ve come to know that cancer is not one disease, but rather a collection of hundreds of molecularly distinct malignancies that can look, behave and respond to treatments differently.

Unfortunately, malignant brain tumors or brain cancer are one area that has not benefited sufficiently from the progress seen in the larger oncology field to date.

For malignant brain tumor patients, the five-year relative survival rates have remained unacceptably low (around 35 percent) for decades. Further, pediatric brain tumors have now surpassed leukemia as the leading cause of cancer-related death in children under the age of 14. Indeed, there are only five FDA-approved therapies to treat the more than 120 different types of brain tumors.

"The emerging areas of precision medicine, immunotherapy and big, or open, data have the power to revolutionize brain tumor research and drug development..."

This lack of progress can be attributed, in large part, to the complexity, heterogeneity and adaptability of brain tumors.

On the horizon

Despite this slow pace of progress in the past, researchers are now more poised than ever to understand brain tumors, develop new treatments and improve patients’ lives.

In just the past five years, emerging scientific discoveries have revealed a trove of biological information on brain tumors that are helping researchers and clinicians better unravel the complexity of these tumors, and subsequently attack their vulnerabilities with new precision treatments. We’ve also seen annual government funding for brain cancer research increase by $19 million since 2011.

At the same time, the emerging areas of precision medicine, immunotherapy and big, or open, data have the power to revolutionize brain tumor research and drug development and lead to more effective treatments for patients. Now is the time to capitalize on these opportunities and generate even greater impact in the brain tumor field.

The finish line

Achieving headline-grabbing progress and improving survival rates for brain tumor patients will require all stakeholders in the brain tumor community to commit to increased support for research, fiercer advocacy efforts, improved patient engagement and a greater focus on collaboration.

Encouragingly, a number of promising initiatives have recently launched with the aforementioned ideals in mind, including the GBM AGILE trial, Defeat GBM Research Collaborative, Jumpstarting Brain Tumor Drug Development Coalition, Pacific Pediatric Neuro-Oncology Consortium, Vice President Biden’s “Moonshot” and many more.

Collectively, these efforts are poised to help overcome the challenges of treating the nearly 700,000 Americans living with a brain tumor today. Still, to ensure a brighter future for all of those who will be diagnosed tomorrow, the brain tumor community must, and surely will, continue to forge head with even greater resolve and determination.