Barely a day passes without the U.S. and China sharing bitter differences on a wide range of topics. One high-profile area of relatively positive exchange: global warming. At the U.N. Climate Change Conference last month known as COP26, the two countries agreed to work to lower greenhouse gas emissions.
And yet another subject may hold promise. Government officials and cancer specialists from the two sides were on hand at an online forum on Dec. 3-4 to advance collaboration in healthcare. The fourth annual MSK-CTONG Symposium was organized by two top cancer bodies – Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, or MSK, a top U.S. cancer center, and the Chinese Thoracic Oncology Group, or CTONG, an alliance of more than 30 cancer centers in China. Invited speakers from the U.S. government side included Dr. Richard Pazdur, director of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s Oncology Center of Excellence. Dr. Zhou Ming, senior reviewer in the Center for Drug Evaluation at the National Medical Products Administration — the mainland equivalent of the FDA, spoke from China. The two sides expressed general support for collaboration between international regulatory agencies for a key link in the advancement of cancer cures: clinical trials.
The need is clear. Cancer will kill more people than Covid-19 this year. The U.S. and China have the worst problem — some 3 to 4 million new deaths from cancer occur each year in the U.S. and China alone. Only 3-5% of cancer patients in the U.S. currently enroll in clinical trials to treat cancer; globally, the percentage is even smaller. Collaboration could lead to faster times for drug development and better treatments, noted Dr. Bob Li, a lung cancer specialist who is MSK’s Physician Ambassador to China and Asia-Pacific.
Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, founded in 1884, has co-organized the MSK-CTONG Symposium with CTONG for four years. The first was in New York in 2018, followed by an in-person event in Guangzhou in 2019 before COVID struck. The two subsequent events in 2020 and this year have been hybrid – partly online and partly in person. The two organizations aim to return to New York in-person in 2022, Covid-19 allowing.
The rise of Joe Biden as U.S. president has stirred hopes for a bigger push for cancer cures from the U.S. government side. The death of Biden’s son Beau Biden from cancer spurred an effort by then U.S. Vice President Biden to organize a “National Cancer Moonshot Initiative” to support research to “end cancer as we know it.” Supportive comments by Biden for cancer research this year, however, have been
overshadowed by Covid-19 and other issues. A virtual summit between Biden and China President Xi Jinping in November has raised hopes for more progress. Kevin Rudd, the former Australia prime minister who is currently CEO of the New York-headquartered Asia Society, said the Biden-Xi meeting was encouraging and “created some political space for collaborative projects” and goodwill along the lines of ping-pong diplomacy between the U.S. and China in the 1970s.
Yet there are obstacles. U.S.-China geopolitics remain strained; negative headlines extend into healthcare and science. Just this weekend, prestigious Brigham Health in Massachusetts attracted front-page press in the Boston Globe for a former relationship with debt-laden China developer China Evergrande Group that “risked its reputation on what would become a near-empty shell.” This month, the former chair of Harvard’s chemistry and chemical biology department was convicted of lying to federal authorities about his affiliation with a China talent program and the Wuhan University of Technology in China, as well as for failing to report income he received in the country.
And yet work to boost healthcare by the U.S. and China continues, in part because both sides bring something to the table. A centerpiece of the U.S. effort to promote international collaboration is Project Orbis, organized by Pazdur’s Oncology Center of Excellence in 2019. The project provides a way for cancer treatments to be reviewed by more than one country at the same time. Eight nations – the U.S., Australia, Canada, Singapore, Switzerland, Brazil, the U.K. and Israel are involved. China’s large population, aging demographics and cancer incidence make it fertile soil for clinical trials that would help accelerate breakthroughs globally.
Private sector capital and talent flows between the two sides in the healthcare and drug fields also continue, irrespective of direct government involvement. This month, for instance, BeiGene, a biotech company that provides cancer treatments, became the first to have its shares traded on stock exchanges in the U.S., Hong Kong and mainland China; it is also a booster of international clinical trials. Besides advancements in cancer and China, U.S. healthcare institutions are looking at an increasingly prosperous Asia to expand.
Beyond a welcome for U.S.-China partnership, doctors at the MSK-CTONG Symposium discussed the specifics of liquid biopsies and technology guided therapy trials. Underscoring that the two sides are already doing more than talk, MSK and CTONG announced two new clinical trials for promising lung cancer treatments — trastuzumab deruxtecan and ARX788 in collaboration with AstraZeneca and Ambrx, respectively. Dr. Martin Murphy, co-founder of CEO Roundtable on Cancer commissioned by President H.W. Bush and the CEO of the Shanghai TuoXin Health Promotion Center, noted that U.S.-China collaboration in cancer didn’t just involve a “common denominator, but a common demon.” At least when it comes to fighting cancer, doctors are “in” on both sides, and working to advance progress against the global killer.
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