Society is ever-so-slowly winning its war against cancer. That’s due in part to better health habits, such as not smoking, but it’s also because diagnostic and therapeutic technologies are advancing at an accelerated pace.

Thanks to the mapping of the human genome, and the related explosion of knowledge about proteins, enzymes, genetic markers, targeted therapeutics and “personalized medicine,” researchers are making headway along many fronts. There won’t be a single cure for cancer – but there may be a number of diagnostics and therapies that will help detect cancers sooner and fight them more effectively.

Look for Wisconsin companies to be a part of increased hope for patients and their families worldwide.

As the 2012 BIO International Convention opened Monday in Boston, attention was focused on the recent burst of activity around cancer drug approvals by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and the rise in cancer drug applications.

The FDA expects about 20 cancer drug applications this year. In 2011, 10 of 30 new drugs approved by the federal government’s drug regulators were for treatment of cancer.

As the head of the FDA’s office of oncology products explained, the rise in applications and approvals is all about the science: A better understanding of the molecular makeup of the disease has led to new treatments.

The pace of drug approvals is never fast, given the need to test for safety and effectiveness in large clinical trials, but some cancer drugs have been cleared ahead of schedule. So far this year, cancer drugs approved by the FDA include Roche’s Erivedge for basal cell carcinoma; Pfizer’s Inlyta for kidney cancer; GlaxoSmithKline’s Votrient for soft-tissue sarcoma; and Leo Pharma Picato for actinic keratosis.

Among those on stage in Boston was Exact Sciences, a Madison-based firm that has developed a colon cancer screening test that utilizes slight changes in DNA. Because it’s non-invasive, relatively inexpensive and fast, it could become a preferred screening method. Company CEO Kevin Conroy believes the test could “eradicate” colon cancer over time because so many people are screened too late in the process.

Other Wisconsin companies marketing or developing cancer treatments or tests include:

  • Quintessence Biosciences, which is focused on development of protein-based therapeutics as anti-cancer agents. Quintessence will also present its technology in Boston this week.
  • Centrose, which is targeting late-stage cancers, including lung cancer, using cellular binding technologies.
  • Endece, which has focused on key biological switches – called estrogen receptors – that can affect cancer cells.
  • ProCertus BioPharm, which is developing products that prevent the common side effects of cancer chemotherapy and radiotherapy.
  • Novelos Therapeutics (formerly Cellectar), a clinical stage radiopharmaceutical company.
  • NeuWave Medical, which has developed a device that attacks tumors with microwave energy.
  • SHINE and NorthStar Medical Radioisotopes, separate companies that are pursuing new technologies to produce radioactive isotopes used 50,000 times per day in the United States to diagnose many diseases.
  • Accuray, formerly known as TomoTherapy, which is producing specialized radiation machines for treating cancer. A related company, CPAC, is developing a next-generation technology that promises to be even more targeted and effective.

These companies are emerging at the right time. Not only is the FDA pursuing more cancer drugs and devices, but major pharmaceutical companies are hoping to refill their research pipelines. Sometimes, Big Pharma finds that kind of innovation in smaller R&D companies.

Although at different stages of research, development, clinical trials and product approval, these companies are all pulling in roughly the same direction – disease diagnosis and treatment. Along with the state’s major research institutions, they’re in the front lines in the fight against cancer.

It may be years before blockbuster results can be delivered. In the meantime, however, Wisconsin companies and researchers are generating hope and even excitement. For people who are fighting cancer, or might be in the future, that’s heartening news.

Still is president of the Wisconsin Technology Council. He is the former associate editor of the Wisconsin State Journal in Madison.