By Scot Ebbinghaus, vice president, clinical research, Merck Research Laboratories
Sixty years ago, in 1958, Dr. Rosalind Franklin died following a two-year fight with ovarian cancer. She was only 37-years-old. Her pioneering research provided the key to deciphering the structure and function of DNA – and ultimately the blueprint for life.
In 1962 her collaborators, James Watson, Francis Crick and Maurice Wilkins were awarded the Nobel Prize for their “discoveries concerning the molecular structure of nucleic acids and its significance for information transfer in living material.” Franklin’s untimely death denied her the acclaim of this prestigious scientific award (the Nobel Committee does not award the prize posthumously), but her role in this fundamental discovery has been well documented and is now widely recognized.
Franklin’s story of a life cut short by ovarian cancer remains all too common. Even today, advanced ovarian cancer remains one of the most difficult cancers to treat with only about one-third (29 percent) of patients with metastatic ovarian cancer surviving five years after diagnosis. By contrast, when the cancer is caught early, before it has spread, the odds of surviving at least five years after diagnosis are much better. Unfortunately, only a small percentage of women are diagnosed at an early stage.
There remains a reason for optimism. The pace of change in cancer treatment has increased dramatically in recent years. Advances in research – many of which may be traced back to Franklin’s work – have given us a deeper understanding of how to target the disease, paving the way for new developments. Specific to ovarian cancer, recent clinical research has shown promise for women with advanced stages of the disease.
At Merck, we are focused on translating breakthrough science into oncology therapeutics that have the greatest potential for improving long-term disease control and survival for patients, including those with ovarian cancer. We recognize that no two patients or cancers are the same and multiple approaches – therapeutic regimens and mechanisms of action – will be needed to outpace this disease. That’s why we have worked rigorously to expand and diversify our own internal research programs.
There is still work to be done, but we believe strongly in our potential to transform the way all cancers are treated. And we are constantly inspired to work harder by stories like Rosalind Franklin’s.