September is Prostate Cancer Awareness Month, a time to focus special attention on a disease that is diagnosed in around 1.1 million men worldwide annually. Every year an estimated 307,000 people die from prostate cancer, the second most common cancer in men.
It’s an older person’s disease—60% of all prostate cancers are detected in men aged 65 or more—so we can expect those numbers to increase as people around the world continue to live longer. The same is true for other chronic illnesses like Alzheimer’s disease, cardiovascular disease and autoimmune diseases, collectively known as non-communicable diseases (NCDs). Epidemics of age-related NCDs are emerging worldwide, exerting a terrible toll in both human and socioeconomic terms.
As I get older I’m very aware of my growing health risks. I do my best to keep fit, eat the right foods and get regular medical checks. But I know that this will not be enough. For example, there is very little I can do to prevent prostate cancer and even the best treatment options leave much to be desired. The early detection and treatment of an aggressive prostate cancer could extend my life considerably, but there is currently no test that would tell me or my physician whether the tumor will grow rapidly or very slowly. In the former case, I’d need invasive treatment with potentially serious side-effects. In the latter, I could avoid therapy and would have a good chance of living for many more years.
More than a million men face this dilemma every year. What if we could offer every single man an effective way to monitor their prostate health, predict their chance of getting prostate cancer and prevent it from getting started? Imagine what that would mean in terms of peace of mind and enjoyment of life. Imagine the savings for society and healthcare systems.
That is one of the goals we are working towards at the Janssen Prevention Center, a new research group established at the start of 2015 and embedded within Janssen Research & Development. Our center is dedicated to the discovery and development of innovative concepts for disease prevention, focusing on age-related NCDs.
Our work starts with research aimed at understanding prevention targets and identifying predictive markers for disease. Success in these areas will pave the way for discovering preventive interventions, which could include vaccines, small-molecule drugs and interventions influencing the composition of the human microbiome, the diverse population of microbes living on and in the body.
This is frontier science. Difficult? Definitely. Can we do it? We are certainly going to give it our best shot, drawing on the scientific talent we have in house, as well as external expertise.
Some people think that what we are trying to do is impossible. That only spurs us on. Recently the prestigious journal Science published ground-breaking research led by our scientists. The publication described a breakthrough step towards a universal flu vaccine, using a design that other experts in the influenza field had said was unachievable. So our researchers have a track record for making the ‘impossible’ possible, through a combination of rigorous science and creative leaps of the imagination. I have every confidence in their ability to do it again.
There is compelling evidence that preventive approaches that have worked for infectious diseases will also work for certain NCDs, which represent a much tougher challenge for prevention. It will still be many years before we can expect to see a preventive vaccine or drug against prostate cancer, Alzheimer’s disease, heart disease or rheumatoid arthritis. But it’s important to start the journey now. Filling the gap in prevention will transform human lives as well as healthcare.