Cancer Cures and Tort Law – Where Is Science and Where Is It Going ?
Today, more on science, cancer and law. Why do I think these topics are worth writing about for tort lawyers and perhaps some policy-makers around the world? Because science brings us a fast arriving future, as is detailed below. And, if the US actually achieves health care reform and more sophisticated rules at the FDA, cures will arrive even sooner. The results for lawyers, cancer victims and persons at risk ? Over the next few years, we will see more highly specific lawsuits seeking specific kinds of medical monitoring (tests for proteins, specific types of scans) and specific leading-edge clinical treatments. You can read here a summary of the cases Phillip Morris is fighting and note that two (in New York and Massachusetts ) are medical monitoring cases seeking CT scans for certain groups of smokers. More such suits are sure to come as science moves ahead. And, damages claims are going to increase around the world as even the poorest persons from any nation seek what they will argue is the fundamental human right to funds for and access to a meaningful chance for a cure for cancer. Thus, the financial and human stakes will continue to rise for parties to litigation and national policy-makers.
To start with, consider some numbers regarding cancer. About 2,4oo hundred or so annual mesothelioma cancer deaths in the US have caused the payment of hundreds of billions of dollars in settlement payments and legal fees. The mesothelioma rate is exploding over seas, especially in Australia and Europe where amphibole use was rampant and continued far longer than it did in the US. Meanwhile, many nations are increasing the use of asbestos, including some use of chrysotile that contains amphiboles.
Now look outside asbestos and see how small mesothelioma is in the grand scheme. Per statistics from the American Cancer Society, over 1.4 million new cancers will be diagnosed this year just in the US and 4% of Americans are cancer survivors. Every two days, more people in the US die of cancer than died on 9/11/01. Mesothelioma is a modest problem in that scale (a statement which is not to minimize the horrible and almost always fatal nature of mesothelioma.)
Now, think about another form of cancer, such as non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. The annual rate used to be over 50,000 per year (in just the US) but now has climbed to well over 60,000 diagnoses per year. Please see this prior post for links to the American Cancer Society data and for Gina Kolata’s prior article summarizing the slow pace of generating cures.
In view of those numbers, consider where science is on research. Ms. Kolata last week published this important new article detailing the moribund pace and utility of clinical trials for new cancer drugs. It’s depressing reading as she details multiple problems, including lack of volunteers for the trials, and design flaws that require too many participants. Yet another problem – highly relevant today – is that most existing insurance reimbursement plans financially and practically discourage doctors from helping patients find and join appropriate clinical trials. So, for policy-makers and voters, here is proof that our present system is exactly backwards as it discourages clinical trials needed to find and prove cures for cancer. Thus, we now have further objective proof that our existing health care insurance system is built to generate revenues instead of cures, and so is deeply flawed for persons with serious diseases, which of course is the group that most needs health care and insurance. Hopefully a revised system will include some clever economic choice Nudges from the conservative and creative new regulatory czar, Cass Sunstein ( go here for the blog tied to the recent and wonderful book Nudge by Messrs. Sunstein and Thaler).
But, despite those flaws, is science now at a point to make real progress and actually put in place cures for at least several cancers? Some say yes. Who says so? Nobel Prize winner Dr. James Watson, one of the two leaders of the team that explained DNA’s double-helix. Go here for his powerful article explaining that mapping the genome and other advances mean that science has made enough progress so that there is now a scientific tool kit that can actually work for some people with some cancers and can be applied to an increasingly wide range of cancers. Here’s the opening paragraph of his article:
“THE National Cancer Institute, which has overseen American efforts on researching and combating cancers since 1971, should take on an ambitious new goal for the next decade: the development of new drugs that will provide lifelong cures for many, if not all, major cancers. Beating cancer now is a realistic ambition because, at long last, we largely know its true genetic and chemical characteristics.” (emphasis added).
Go here for Dr. Wendy Harpham’s full post on Dr. Watson’s article, but here is Dr. Harpham’s summary of his recommendations:
“Watson believes :
The new signal-blocking drugs (e.g., Herceptin) will lead only to improved lengths of survival. Most anticancer drugs can reach their full potential only if given in combination with other drugs. We must change F.D.A. regulations to allow testing in combination new drugs that, when given alone, have proved ineffective.
The NCI should provide funds to smaller biotech companies doing innovative work and to major research-oriented cancer centers doing low probability-high payoff projects.”
Do clinical trials and science actually translate into lives saved even while science is ongoing? Yes, sometimes. Want proof ? Go to this blog (On Healthy Survivorship) to read Dr. Harpham’s personal success story. She is a physic an who was forced to give up her patient treatment practice back in the early 1990s due to repeated onsets of non-Hodgkins lymphoma. Thwarted, she refocused to writing a great series of books and a blog about cancer and healthy survivorship. Today, she is a healthy survivor because of clinical trials and monoclonal antibodies, and healthy, realistic hope, as she describes in this post in particular and her blog and books in general.
Conclusion ? I’d say defense lawyers and corporations face future waves of claims based on new science and new lawsuits seeking new remedies. Specific causation and other defenses of course will continue to exist, but when the plaintiffs can invoke names of credible scientists such as Dr. Watson, the defense side will start to see one aspect of the whittling back of science as major weapon against tort claims.