Heidi Williams of the MIT Department of Economics. Image: John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation (CC-BY)
Image: John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation (CC-BY)

In a recent article, BBC News Health reported that in spite of large amounts of money and effort focused on fighting cancer, the number of new cancer cases is expected to reach 24 million by 2035. BBC asked four experts, including MIT assistant professor of economics Heidi Williams: Is it time to rethink our approach?

Williams, a 2015 MacArthur Fellow, believes that private research investments distort available treatments. In her research, she’s found that most drugs approved by the FDA are for late-stage cancer patients—drugs that require a relatively short clinical trial to prove their efficacy. Demonstrating the benefits of a treatment for early stage patients, who are typically healthier, requires a much longer timeline. “The difference in clinical trial lengths matters because longer trials are more expensive and take more time,” she explained.

This issue is compounded, Williams said, because companies tend to file for patent protection before they begin clinical trials. A shorter clinical trial cycle means the company has more time to generate profits once their drug reaches the market.

How does she suggest correcting this distortion? Providing public funding for early stage cancer and cancer prevention could help, since private funds are more likely to be funneled to later stage research.

Concluded Williams: “We estimate that trying to address this distortion between private incentives and social incentives could have a really important impact on patient survival.”

Read more at BBC News Health and hear Williams discuss her research on Radio Boston.

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