June 30, 2016 at 5:00 am ET
Much has been written about the “Cancer Moonshot” announced by President Barack Obama in his 2016 State of the Union address. Some have praised the move as historic while others have questioned whether, given the complexities of cancer, a cure can be attainable. Still others have asked if we are not better off spending our time and resources solely on prevention efforts.
In reality the effort being led by Vice President Joseph Biden is not a magic bullet to cure cancer in the same way that we accomplished a moon landing – where a big push led to a very specific achievement. Rather, this is an organized and concerted effort that will lead to progress with several specific areas of cancer treatment. While the promise of a cure for cancer may seem unattainable, the promise of real progress most certainly is not.
That is particularly true when it comes to one of the pillars of the Cancer Moonshot announced by Vice President Biden– the sharing of data between institutions. The aim is simple, though the task is not – to construct a large database of information that embodies our combined experience and knowledge of cancer. What this represents is a jumping off point for a much larger and more collaborative effort. In fact, the very complexities of cancer make an enhanced level of information exchange all the more compelling.
First of all, within the treatment of cancer there is a diversity of expertise. Hematologists encounter and treat patients who have blood-based cancers such as multiple myeloma, lymphoma and leukemia. And then there are specialists treating various types of solid tumors such as lung and colon cancer. Secondly, there are different types of cancers, and within one of these categories, there is vast diversity in how cancer manifests. Finally, there is of course a great deal of difference among patients. In short, the combinations at play when treating a patient are exponential.
That is what makes the creation of a large body of information at this point in time so compelling. We have more treatments – and more patients taking those treatments – than ever before. We need to know more about them. We have broken new ground with immunotherapies and understanding the genetic underpinnings of some cancers. Certainly we need to research new cancer treatments, but we also need to understand better how to use the ones that we have. And that is true not only with respect to treating a patient’s cancer initially, but once remission is achieved in fighting against any future recurrence.
Most people may have thought such an exchange of information was already occurring and in fact, there have been efforts at collaboration. But there have also been silos across academia, geography and countries that keep it from being shared to the degree it should be. The call to action by the Administration will help break down the barriers and translate science into the best therapies for our patients.
To accomplish this, we do need to make sure that we have realistic goals and expectations. But we can acknowledge the limitations of our efforts without compromising the extent of our aspirations. This is an unprecedented opportunity to make science count for patients – not science for the sake of science or academic advancement.
The data collection effort is very unique in terms of the scope and the need and the willingness for collaboration by researchers, institutions and patients in order that we develop a treasured resource for patients, caregivers and scientists around the world. Without it the progress that has been remarkable to date simply won’t continue. This aspect of the Cancer Moonshot may not be a magic bullet, but it offers the promise to markedly improve patient outcome with more potent, selective and well tolerated therapies.
Kenneth C. Anderson, MD, is President-Elect of the American Society of Hematology and Director of the Lebow Institute for Myeloma Therapeutics and Jerome Lipper Myeloma Center at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute. He also serves as the Kraft Family Professor of Medicine and Vice Chair of the Joint Program in Transfusion Medicine at Harvard Medical School.