Eric C. Sun, et al, have a new working paper about the effects and effectiveness of investment in cancer research. NBER abstract here. Also see Stephen Dubner of Freakonomics discussing the findings here. I find a passage from Dubner particularly interesting:

Believe it or not, this flat mortality rate actually hides some good news. Over the same period, age-adjusted mortality from cardiovascular disease has plummeted, from nearly 600 people per 100,000 to well below 300. What does this mean? Many people who in previous generations would have died from heart disease are now living long enough to die from cancer instead.

This is the way health progress is made, and why encouraging investment in new technologies is so critical. Progress might only extend life a few years, but the findings of the article show that

Between 1988 and 2000, life expectancy for cancer patients increased by roughly four years, and the average willingness-to-pay for these survival gains was roughly $322,000. Improvements in cancer survival during this period created 23 million additional life-years and roughly $1.9 trillion of additional social value, implying that the average life-year was worth approximately $82,000 to its recipient.

These incremental advances are worth so much to people at the end of life and there is such potential for mutually beneficial exchange that eventually this process leads to great progress. It is easy, though, to only see a small piece of progress at a time and say that changing incentives for health companies will not do much damage; that is the situation with health care reform in the US now.