Christin Burd, a cancer researcher, works in her lab to set up an experiment on melanoma cells at the Ohio State Biomedical Research Tower. Courtesy of the Ohio State Wexner Medical Center

Fewer people are dying from cancer than ever before.

For nearly three decades, the cancer death rate has been decreasing steadily at an average of about 1.5 percent each year. But between 2016 and 2017, the rate dropped by 2.2 percent — the largest single-year decrease ever recorded — according to a report released by the American Cancer Society earlier this month.

Advances in lung cancer treatments and fewer people smoking contributed to the overall larger drop, but according to the report, melanoma skin cancer saw the steepest decline in a single cancer death rate.

“It’s really exciting that we have had this consistent decrease in cancer death, and from the research perspective we’ve seen the success with clinical trials,” Christin Burd, a melanoma cancer researcher at the Wexner Medical Center at Ohio State, said. “This report essentially enumerates what we already know has been happening — this great evolution in cancer therapies.”

Burd said that in her lab, she studies how genetic differences in melanoma patients affect their response to treatments.

The death rate for melanoma fell by 7 percent every year between 2013 and 2017. The report cited two immunotherapy drugs, Yervoy and Zelboraf, which were approved by the Food and Drug Administration in 2011, as drivers for the decline.

Burd said immunotherapy drugs have been “game-changers” for melanoma and other types of cancer.

Immunotherapy drugs block proteins produced by cancer cells that allow the cancer to hide from a patient’s immune system. Burd said that by blocking the proteins, a patient’s own body can detect and fight off the cancer. The immune system then can learn what the cancer cells look like and continue to fight them if they develop in other parts of a patient’s body. 

“That’s why we have these really long, durable responses because, essentially, you’re carrying the therapy with you,” she said. “We’re essentially gearing up an army.”

Melanoma is one of the most aggressive cancers, and Burd said it is resistant to chemotherapy and radiation therapies but often responds well to immunotherapy drugs.

“Before there were any immunotherapies available, most patients with melanoma were dying in a matter of months from their disease,” Burd said. “I mean we really had nothing.”

However, Burd said some patients don’t respond to immunotherapy drugs, and researchers still don’t fully understand why that is. 

Burd said she and research assistants are helping to identify new treatments for unresponsive patients. They are investigating the genetic differences between people who are at a higher risk for developing melanoma and those who are at a lower risk.

Although Americans are less likely to die from cancer now than a couple of decades ago, gaps in health care access and insurance coverage still pose barriers to cancer treatment for some, according to the report.

“Even if we make the best therapy, if we can’t get it to everyone, then we’re not doing our jobs,” she said.

Electra Paskett, director of the Cancer Control Research Program at the medical center, said increasing access to early screening tests and vaccines, educating communities on risk factors and providing affordable transportation to treatment centers are the next steps to increase the cancer survival rate.

“We know what can prevent cancer,” Paskett said. “We have the opportunity that we can actually eradicate a cancer from the country or from the world, and we need to jump on that.”

Since 1991, nearly 3 million Americans have survived cancer, but diagnoses still remain high, according to the report. This year, Ohio is expected to see 71,850 new cancer cases and about 35 percent of Ohioans diagnosed will die.

Across the country, nearly 5,000 people will be diagnosed every day with 1,600 cancer deaths occurring daily in 2020, the report states.

“There are going to be 1.8 million new cancer cases in 2020,” Burd said. “Our job is far from done.”