IN A HEARTBEAT
It wasn’t that long ago – maybe 20 years or even just 15 years ago – that a diagnosis of cancer was essentially a death sentence.
But not any more.
Thanks to modern technology, better detection and new medications, the overall survival rate for adult Mexican patients with cancer is now more than 65 percent, compared to less than 50 percent in the late 1970s.
Of course, the success of treatments varies depending on the specific type of cancer and how far advanced the disease is when diagnosed, but, in general the success rate for treating and even curing most types of cancer is on the rise.
The greatest advances have been in the area of childhood cancers, such as leukemia, which used to kill 80 percent of patients and now has a 80 percent survival rate.
But while cancer may no longer be an automatic death sentence, it is still a serious disease (or group of diseases, since the term cancer refers to a family of more than 100 different diseases characterized by abnormal cell growth), and is, according to the Mexican Health Secretariat (SSA), the third-most-common cause of death nationwide.
“Each year, about 180,000 Mexicans are diagnosed with some type of cancer,” explained Samuel Rivera Rivera, president of the Mexican Oncological Society (SMO), during a press conference organized by Nanopharmacia Diagnóstica, a company that provides genetic testing and DNA analysis for cancer patients in order to determine specific targeted treatments.
“And roughly one in three Mexicans will be diagnosed with cancer in their lifetime.”
The key to treating those cancers is early detection and appropriate therapy, which is where Nanopharmacia comes in to play.
“We all know that the sooner the disease is diagnosed and treated, the better the outcome for the patient,” added Erika Betzabé Ruiz García, head of the Superare Center Oncological and Infusion Center in Colonia Juárez.
“But not every cancer or every patient responses to treatment the same way, so by analyzing the tumor cells and genetic makeup of a patient prior to treatment, doctors can choose what therapy is best suited to their particular condition.”
Nanopharmacia offers free genetic testing and applied genomics for some Mexican patients with breast, colon or lung cancer, based on a specific profile and recommendation from their physician, said Horacio Astudillo de la Vega, a founding member of the for-profit company, which since its founding in 2011 has already conducted 20,000 clinical examinations.
Astudillo de la Vega went on to say that while the price of these exams is quite high (as much as $4,500 per test), his company has signed protocol agreements with major international pharmaceutical companies that have agreed to absorb the costs.
“That means that there is absolutely no cost for the patient, or even the doctor,” he said.
“But, so far, we are not reaching even half the patients who could be candidates for this type of testing.”
The reason for the backlog?
Rivera Rivera said that the answer is three-pronged.
“To begin with, there are just not enough oncologists in Mexico,” he said, adding the less than 15 percent of the nation’s medical schools include oncology in their curriculum and that of the roughly 1,250 certified oncologists in the country, 60 percent live in Mexico City and the metropolitan area, leaving much of the provinces without adequate coverage.
Secondly, Rivera Rivera said that many physicians simply are not aware of the Nanopharmacia program.
“We need to get the word out, both to doctors and their patients,” he said.
“By analyzing how cancer cells will react to a specific therapy, we can target treatment and eliminate random therapies that are too often hit-or-miss.”
And, finally, too many of the patients are diagnosed too late into their progression to qualify as candidates for the study, he said.
“This is not to say that patients with advanced cancer cannot benefit from targeted therapy,” said Astudillo de la Vega, “but again, treating cancer is a race against time, and the sooner a patient begins treatment, the better his or her chances for survival.”
Ruiz García said that treating cancer needs to be a joint effort between patients and physicians.
“There is no better way to fight cancer than through prevention,” she said.
“People have to start taking responsibility for their own health by adopting better lifestyles. That means eating heathy diets, doing exercise and not smoking. And it also means that people have to have regular checkups and be vigilant of their health. It means not waiting to see a doctor if they notice an unusual growth or other signs that might be early symptoms of cancer.”
“Molecular medicine and the use of targeted treatments is the cutting edge in treating cancer today,” said Rivera Rivera, “and in Mexico we are fortunate enough to have free access to these clinical studies. That can save lives.”
Astudillo de la Vega said that, for now, his company is only providing the free tests for breast, lung and colon cancer (three of the most common cancers in Mexico), but that he hoped in the future more pharmaceutical companies will agree to pay for testing of therapies for other types of cancer.
Nanopharmacia Diagnóstica’s offices are located at Tuxpan 2-704 in Colonia Roma Sur (tel: 5264-2815 or 5584-2305).
Only a physician can submit tissues for analysis.
For more information, consult the company’s webpage at www.nanopharmacia.com.