By Chris Adams

The headlines are promising: “Cancer Death Rate in the U.S. Sees Sharpest One-Year Drop.” “Progress On Lung Cancer Drives Historic Drop in U.S. Cancer Death Rate.”

At the same time, researchers are making significant breakthroughs in new therapies – primarily forms of immunotherapy that  supercharge the body’s immune system to attack cancer cells.

“It’s really an astounding time to be in cancer research,” said Dr. Norman E. “Ned” Sharpless, director of the National Cancer Institute of the National Institutes of Health. He pointed to a dramatic increase in talented researchers entering the field as well as NCI-funded researchers who have won Noble Prizes for their discoveries.

In a discussion with National Press Foundation fellows, Sharpless (bio, Twitter) talked about the “unprecedented” breakthroughs in cancer treatments and the number of medicines winning Food and Drug Administration approval. It used to be that meetings of cancer researchers would convene and talk about therapies that added a month or two to a patient’s expected life. The new therapies add years to life.

That said, the cancer research field faces inevitable challenges.

For starters, there is uneven progress by type of cancer. While survival rates of some cancers have soared, progress has stalled on other types, such as brain and pancreatic cancer, he said.

Moreover, there is intense competition for funding – meaning it’s tough for young researchers to get grants. An acceptance rate of 10% can be demoralizing for young researchers.

“If your chance of getting a grant is one in 10, your expectation is you will not get funded,” he said.

Sharpless also noted the difficulty enrolling enough patients for a clinical trial, the costs of new cancer drugs, and the differential outcomes between urban patients, who do better, and rural patients, who fare worse.

The greatest unmet need is for a good cancer screening test for healthy populations, he said.