Despite all the hubbub over the Affordable Care Act, long-term demographics seem to be pointing in the healthcare sector's favor. As our global population continues to grow and age, better healthcare solutions will be required and demanded. A recent study by The Lancet Oncology journal is helping to underscore that fact. Cancer incidence rates are already a leading cause of death worldwide and are set to rise exponentially over the next few decades, as our population grows and ages. Armed with this trend and expiring patents on drugs in other areas, oncology is being targeted as a commercially attractive area for many pharmaceutical firms. For investors, that could spell long-term opportunities.

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A Big Jump
According to research published by The Lancet, global incidences of cancer may rise more than 75% by 2030. By looking at U.N. population data and the International Agency for Research on Cancer's (IARC) own database on global cancer incidences, the journal predicts that the number of people with cancer in 2030 will rise to 22.2 million citizens annually, or 0.3% of the total global population. That's up from 12.7 million confirmed cancer cases in 2008 and more than the 13 million annual cases estimated by the World Health Organization in that time frame.

Developed and "rich" nations will feel the brunt of much of the cancer weight, with almost 40% of the global incidences occurring within these countries. However, what's shocking is the growth in cancer rates in the developing world. Currently, cancers associated with infections, such as that of the cervix, stomach and liver, are more prominent in emerging markets. However, the Lancet predicts a surge in the types of cancers associated with smoking, obesity and diet across the developing world, as these nations adopt a more "modern" lifestyle. According to the study, poor countries may see more than a doubling in the rates of cancer from 2008 to 2030.

With these long-term trends in tow, the disease could mean a rich stream of sales and profits for drugmakers. For example, Bristol-Myers Squibb's (NYSE:BMY) melanoma treatment Yervoy costs $120,000 for a four-infusion course. Those big dollar amounts have helped cancer medicines overtake cholesterol fighters as the biggest-selling selling prescription drug class. Analysts estimate that cancer drug sales are set to hit $85 billion by 2016. That's up from $58 billion in 2011 and $8 billion in 2000.

SEE: 6 Common Conditions With Expensive Medications

Playing the Trend
With global cancer predicted to become more prevalent across the globe, investors may want to focus on the drug makers working to cure/prevent the disease. Broad-based healthcare funds like the iShares S&P Global Healthcare (ARCA:IXJ), can be used as an overall play on the need for more health solutions. However, the iShares Nasdaq Biotechnology (Nasdaq:IBB) may make a better broad play in this area. The fund tracks 122 biotech firms like Gilead Sciences (Nasdaq:GILD) and Celgene (Nasdaq:CELG), that work on rare diseases and cancer treatments. Overall, it makes a good broad play on these advances.

One of the most interesting cancer-related stories comes from industry stalwart Johnson & Johnson (NYSE:JNJ). The firm's drug Zytiga was approved in the U.S. for metastatic prostate cancer about a year ago, but a recent study showed that one-third of men whose cancer was still confined to the prostate gland showed little or no cancer after the removal of the gland and six months on the drug. Zytiga's 2011 sales totaled around $200 million, but the recent study could help expand sales. J&J has also collaborated with SuperGen to develop the drug Dacogen for acute myeloid leukemia. Overall, J&J makes a great stable play on cancer treatments.

Finally, for investors wanting more of biotech "rocket stock," ImmunoGen (Nasdaq:IMGN) could make a good bet. The biotech owns a proprietary technology that helps target cancer cells while minimizing the damage to healthy tissue. The company is currently working on its own drugs, but has also begun licensing that technology to major pharmaceuticals like Roche (OTCBB:RHHBY) and Sanofi (NYSE:SNY).

SEE: Evaluating Pharmaceutical Companies

The Bottom Line
As the world continues to modernize and grow, global cancer incidences are expected to increase exponentially and pharmaceutical firms are now viewing the sector as a future cash cow. For investors, that can spell opportunity. The previous firms, along with Dendreon (Nasdaq:DNDN), make ideal selections to play the trend.

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At the time of writing, Aaron Levitt did not own shares in any of the companies mentioned in this article.

Tickers in this Article: BMY, IXJ, IBB, GILD, CELG, JNJ, SUPG, IMGN, RHHBY.PK, SNY, DNDN

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