Technology

A Gender Gap in Cancer


The progress against prostate cancer greatly lags breast cancer research and treatment options

This year 218,890 men in the U.S. will be diagnosed with prostate cancer, according to the American Cancer Society. By comparison, 178,480 new cases of breast cancer will be diagnosed in women. Not a huge difference, but a new report finds that for every prostate cancer drug on the market, there are seven used to treat breast cancer, and federal spending on breast cancer research outpaces prostate cancer spending by a ratio of nearly two to one.

The National Prostate Cancer Coalition, a nonprofit advocacy group based in Washington, released the report, titled "The Prostate Cancer Gap: A Crisis in Men's Health." It examines what the group calls "glaring disparities" in awareness, funding, media coverage, and research between prostate and breast cancer, even though prostate cancer is the second-deadliest cancer in men after lung cancer. "Year after year, the prostate cancer community has received less attention and less funding than many other diseases," says Dr. Richard Adkins, chief executive office and vice-chairman of the prostate cancer coalition.

Provenge Setback Spurs Advocacy

It's true that progress on prostate cancer has been much slower than for breast, colon, and kidney cancers. The only new drug for the disease introduced over the last decade has been Taxotere, from Sanofi-Aventis (SNY), a very toxic chemotherapy approved in 2004 for metastatic prostate cancer. Over the same period, a number of breakthrough targeted therapies have been introduced for other cancers that are as effective or more effective than chemo and less toxic, such as Genentech's (DNA) Herceptin and Avastin for breast cancer, Millennium Pharmaceuticals (MLNM) Velcade for leukemia, ImClone Systems' (IMCL) Erbitux for colon cancer, Novartis' (NVS) Gleevec for stomach and blood cancers, and Pfizer's (PFE) Sutent for kidney cancers.

Part of the problem is that prostate cancer is an extremely slow-growing cancer, with a relatively low death rate, thus making it less of a national priority. The American Cancer Society estimates that 27,050 men will die from the disease this year in the U.S., while breast cancer will kill 40,460 women. Prostate cancer has also never attracted the level of patient advocacy that breast cancer has—most men simply do not like to talk about such a disease.

But the prostate cancer community got more vocal in May after the Food & Drug Administration did not approve Dendreon's (DNDN) Provenge last month, a novel cancer vaccine meant to stop prostate cancer from recurring. The FDA requested another trial of the drug, saying the results of the clinical trial submitted by Dendreon did not prove that the drug works. That decision outraged many prostate cancer patients, some of whom had testified in favor of the drug at FDA hearings.

Less Media Coverage

The Prostate Coalition report noted the Provenge setback. It also found that spending on breast cancer research by the National Cancer Institute, which funds much of the academic research into cancer in the U.S., rose from $382 million in 1996 to $715 million by 2006. Over the same decade, prostate cancer funding soared from $86 million to $376 million.

News coverage of prostate cancer has also lagged behind breast cancer over the past decade, the report found. Analyzing seven leading news outlets, it found that between 1996 and 2006 there were 2.6 times as many stories about breast cancer as those about prostate cancer. The researchers also found that only 28 states and the District of Columbia mandate insurance coverage for routine prostate cancer screening, while 49 states mandate coverage of breast cancer screening.

Arnst is a senior writer for BusinessWeek in New York.

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