More than 1.5 million Americans are diagnosed with cancer each year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. And in 2017, more than 500,000 Americans died from the disease, a number that is expected to grow in 2018.

Bringing together hundreds of students, researchers and policymakers to address the growing crisis, Yale Law School’s Solomon Center for Health Law and Policy co-hosted a conference tackling issues in cancer policy with the Smilow Cancer Hospital and the Yale Cancer Center. The conference, which took place last Thursday and Friday, zeroed in on the role that politics and government policy play in cancer research and drug prices.

“Those of us organizing this event spent many hours talking to participants to find out what they thought, apart from the challenges of science, were the biggest challenges today,” said Abbe Gluck, a professor at the Law School and one of the event’s organizers. “[The] topics were the themes that emerged from these conversations — business and financial concerns, access and equality concerns, innovation … concerns about translating new technologies into the clinic and legal obstacles like privacy laws in cancer.”

The conference consisted of four panel sessions and several keynote addresses. At the center of the event was a keynote address on Thursday afternoon by Siddhartha Mukherjee, an oncologist and renowned cancer author. In his talk, he highlighted the complexity of cancer and the need for policymakers and scientists alike to rethink the way they view the disease.

“We have to build up a way of thinking about cancer as a disease, as an aberration of physiology,” he said. “The problem is that for the last 20-odd years, an enormous amount of our conversation was dominated by the fantasies of finding a cure. Those were based on a model that we had inherited from the antibiotic world.”

Mukherjee added that fighting cancer, on the other hand, requires a more holistic knowledge of the disease, beginning with an understanding at the cellular level and slowly building up to the organismal level.

The event kicked off Thursday afternoon with opening remarks from Dean of the Yale Law School Heather Gerken. She said that, as the third major conference held by the Solomon Center, the event played a critical role in bringing together today’s leading thinkers in cancer policy, one of the center’s primary goals.

“Multidimensional problems require multidisciplinary solutions, and we see this as a hallmark for the Solomon Center — a unique intersection of health law, policy and medical practice,” Gerken said.

Nadya Dimitrova, a professor of molecular, cellular and developmental biology at Yale, said she appreciated the unique opportunity the conference gave her to think about cancer from the perspective of policymaking, as opposed to more traditional scientific conferences that focus on the biology.

The first panel of the conference, which focused on the role of the federal government in cancer policy, featured five speakers, including a former Federal Drug Administration commissioner and the chief medical officer of the American Society of Clinical Oncology.

Panelist Harold Varmus, a professor at Weill Cornell Medical College and former director of the National Cancer Institute and National Institutes of Health, spoke about several issues in cancer policy that the federal government is working to address. These included annual appropriations for research grants and regulatory policies to promote new technologies such as next-generation sequencing.

Nancy Goodman, the executive director of Kids v. Cancer and another panelist, shared her journey in becoming a pediatric cancer research advocate after her son was diagnosed with and then died from medulloblastoma, a form of brain cancer.

Goodman said her work, which has resulted in Congress passing into law her organization’s Creating Hope Act pediatric priority review voucher program, demonstrates that private citizens have the power to effect change through advocacy.

Friday morning’s panel invited leaders from organizations such as the American Medication Association, UnitedHealthcare and the Smilow Cancer Hospital at Yale New Haven Hospital to speak about important issues in the business of cancer.

“We have so many different parts of the system that are providing cancer care, trying to advance the field and developing better ways to manage, prevent and treat cancer, but we have very little direct connection between the most valuable and highest impact things that we do and what we get paid for,” Ed Benz, the former president and CEO of Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, said at the conference.

Other panels included a discussion of disparities in the health care system and the costs associated with researching and treating cancer.

Kara Pinaud, an administrator at the Herbert Irving Comprehensive Cancer Center at Columbia University, said she came to the event to learn more about the role government plays in shaping cancer treatment and research, from funding to disparities in health care.

And Sandy Chang, Yale College assistant dean for science education, said he attended to develop a new perspective on the issue of cancer.

“[I came] to understand not just the science of cancer, which we do very well in medical school, but the costs and the politics of cancer — how cancer research is funded, how cancer pharmaceuticals are being developed, or not being developed, in this country,” he said.

The Solomon Center for Health Law and Policy at Yale Law School was founded in 2015.

Amy Xiong | amy.xiong@yale.edu

Niki Anderson | niki.anderson@yale.edu