Editor’s note: Laura Gunter is Membership Development & Government Affairs Director of the North Carolina Biosciences Organization (NCBIO). The content is her own and does not necessarily represent the opinion of NCBIO. Gunter lives in Raleigh.
RALEIGH – It may sound a little rah-rah to say that what is good for North Carolina is good for the nation, but we’re seeing another instance in which that is the case. This is not just parochial cheerleading. There is a new enterprise that could save the lives of women just like me. Women who will get that daunting, life-altering cancer diagnosis, but who will have a good prognosis due to early detection.
Our state government allocated a Job Development Investment Grant to a company that is developing a blood test that can screen for more than 50 cancers simultaneously. In sheer economic terms, it is a good investment. The company, called GRAIL, is building a $100 million state-of-the-art laboratory that will employ nearly 400 people. This one company’s presence in our state is estimated to grow our economy by $1.2 billion in just over a decade. These numbers should please anyone who wants to see our state continue to grow and prosper, especially as we face new challenges to our business community posed by the coronavirus pandemic.
But the human impact of this new area of cancer research is what hits closest to home and is most compelling. As a breast cancer survivor, I truly appreciate standing on the shoulders of those women before me who agreed to treatments and clinical trials that impacted my own more recent treatment. I also have tremendous respect and appreciation for those scientists looking for new ways to detect and treat cancer. America’s War on Cancer is now nearly 50 years old and, while important strides have been made, we’re still losing too many people to the disease. Over 20,000 North Carolinians will die of cancer in this year alone.
Part of the struggle to cut this mortality rate more significantly can be attributed to limitations in our cancer screening infrastructure. We have known for some time that lives are saved by tests like mammograms, colonoscopies and Pap smears. When early detection and prompt treatment happen, five-year cancer survival rates are close to 90 percent. But they drop to just 21 percent with late diagnoses. The trouble is that there are only five cancers that are subject to available screening technologies. One of the reasons I am here today is that I found my breast cancer early, by way of a home breast exam. I was fortunate that my tumor was palpable, but many are not, which is what makes a blood screening option so valuable. The unsurprising, yet frustrating, result is that roughly three of every four people who die from the disease have a cancer for which there is no screening. As long as this is the case, we might continue to make inroads in preventing cancer deaths, but we won’t win the war.
That is where one of North Carolina’s newest corporate citizens comes in, joining a thriving biotech sector in the state. GRAIL is among a number of companies currently engaged in clinical trials of multi-cancer early detection technology, which would complement current screening options. With more than 100,000 participants involved in GRAIL’s studies to date, this is one of the largest testing efforts ever in genomic medicine.
As these clinical trials are taking place, it is incumbent upon our public officials to pave the way for the adoption of this technology: a simple blood test, added to other yearly blood work, that can detect a multitude of cancers early. It seems like a no-brainer because should this research result in Food and Drug Administration approval, it could completely transform cancer screening. Indeed, while treatments and diagnostics are quickly covered by the government insurance program, preventative services are subjected to a lengthy – up to a decade or longer – process of review before coverage is possible. For patients of all ages, this screening technology should be adopted quickly and covered universally by insurers, both public and private.
This is a proud moment for North Carolina. Well beyond seeing significant economic growth and job creation, we are taking a leadership role in the war on cancer. Let’s make sure this investment pays off for our state and our health.