300% rise in approved new cancer treatments in the last two decades, with US cancer moonshot goal achievable by 2048

Posted on Jun 3, 2024

Global cancer prevalence increased by 82.5% from 2000 to 2019 across all cancer types, with breast, colorectal, and prostate cancers being the most widespread globally.

Airfinity’s analysis of the top 10 most prevalent cancer types reveals that the number of approved cancer treatments increased from 28 between (2000-2010) to 115 (2011-2020). Overall, there were 145 distinct approvals, with the majority (85, 68%) occurring from 2017 onwards.

These drugs were either approved by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and/or the European Medicines Agency (EMA). The analysis shows treatments for lung and breast cancers, two of the most deadly cancers, lead in the number of approvals with 55 and 33 licenses, respectively. 

Progress in our understanding of cancer is reflected in the approval trends over the past twenty years which show a shift from chemotherapy-like agents which are broadly cytotoxic to rapidly growing cells to classes of anti-cancer agents designed to more precisely target and/or disrupt alternate aspects of tumor cell biology. Of the 145 approved products analysed, there were 45 cytotoxic drugs and 142 precision medicines (comprising 63 targeted biologics and 79 targeted small molecule agents). It's important to note that 58% of the analysed products were approved for use in combination.

Despite advancements, cancer remains a leading cause of death globally. There has been a notable increase in both incidence and deaths over the past 20 years. According to the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) (the World Health Organization’s cancer agency), in 2022 the global incidence of cancer was 20 million, with 9.7 million deaths reported worldwide.

In the US, an increase in cancer incidence and deaths has also been recorded, although with lower percentage increases compared to global trends. Cancer survival rates remain higher. Notably, over the past two decades, there has been a substantial decrease in age-standardized cancer incidence and mortality rates, indicating that the rise in cancer incidence and deaths is at least partially linked to population growth and aging. Lung cancer, which has notably higher mortality rates, has seen a significant drop in incidence due to a number of factors including improved therapeutic outcomes, screening and smoking cessation programmes, contributing to these trends.

Airfinity’s forecast suggests that if overall cancer mortality continues to decline at the current rate, the US will achieve the Cancer Moonshot goal of a 50% mortality decline between 2047 (49.1%) and 2048 (51.1%). Sustained or accelerated progress against lung, colorectal, and breast cancer deaths is crucial for attaining this goal, alongside the development of new strategies for other types of cancer.

Today’s analysis shows a correlation between cancer drug approvals and reduced deaths across cancer types. This research does not account for the time lag between approval and patient uptake, treatment variability, and the many factors beyond treatment, such as detection and lifestyle. It also does not account for disparities in access to medicine worldwide.

Establishing a direct link between cancer treatment approvals, mortality and survival rates is complex. This study highlights the importance of a multi-pronged approach including continued therapeutic innovation for saving move lives from cancer.

To read the full report, please click here.


This report has been commissioned by Merck Sharp & Dohme (MSD) LLC. The findings, interpretations, and conclusions expressed in this report are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Merck Sharp & Dohme (MSD) LLC. The authors have made every effort to ensure the accuracy and reliability of the information presented, but make no representations or warranties regarding the completeness or suitability of the content for any purpose. Readers are advised to use their own discretion and judgment in interpreting the information provided. The report is provided on an "as-is" basis. Neither Merck Sharp & Dohme (MSD) LLC nor the author are providing any medical, financial, legal, compliance or any other professional advice by allowing you to access the information and data contained in the report, nor do they guarantee the adequacy, veracity, accuracy, or completeness of the information in the report. Readers should not rely on the information contained therein in making any investment or other decision.

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