In a March 27 article in the New England Journal of Medicine, a team led by physicians at Massachusetts General Hospital revealed that a new cancer drug from Novartis has shown exciting clinical results in a small trial of lung cancer patients. While additional trials are necessary before the drug can obtain approval from the Food and Drug Administration, this type of success story demonstrates why research to develop new cancer therapies is critically important.

Researchers in academia, biotech and pharmaceutical companies are making remarkable discoveries to help identify new drugs and drug targets for cancer patients. Many new compounds are under investigation — including those that inhibit the growth of cancer cells, block the blood supply to tumors and prevent tumors from evading the immune system.

Even as scientists seek to bring new cancer treatments to market, however, drug patent issues are holding back some researchers. A major hurdle is in combination drug trials that test two or more therapies at once. Pharmaceutical companies often shy away from trials that have great potential, because the drugs may not generate profits if they are used together with a generic drug or a drug patented by a different company.

Recently, there have been major advances in our understanding of how cancer progresses. As scientists have sequenced thousands of cancer genomes, patterns are starting to emerge. One clear insight we have gained is the likelihood that no single drug will be able to defeat cancer. The reason most cancers become drug resistant and come back is because their DNA mutates quickly. Cancer cells that are not killed by the drugs survive, continue to grow and replace the cells that have been wiped out.

So how can we beat the evolution of cancer cells? Most cancer researchers believe that the way to do it is to use the same approach that holds HIV in check for AIDS patients: with combinations of drugs. These drug cocktails, if used appropriately, may someday control many cancers because the cells resistant to one drug will be sensitive to another.