With the launch of its new Moon Shots Program on Friday, the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center hopes to go where no cancer research center has gone before: It wants to cure eight types of cancer.
The program — which takes its inspiration from President John F. Kennedy’s famous speech on America’s determination to land on the moon — aims to bring together experts who can blend existing research with new technologies to develop commercial, educational and policy strategies to decrease cancer mortality rates globally.
“Kennedy did not say we were going to study how to go to the moon. He said, 'We’re going to go to the moon,'” MD Anderson President Ron DePinho said at a morning press conference. “It’s not enough to discover, we must do."
The program is establishing six separate teams of researchers and clinicians to focus on curing acute myeloid leukemia and myelodysplastic syndrome, chronic lymphocytic leukemia, melanoma, lung cancer, prostate cancer and certain types of breast and ovarian cancers.
One team, for example, will work to improve early detection strategies for lung cancer, “the 800-pound gorilla in respect to mortality,” said DePinho. There are 90 million American smokers, he said, but it is often difficult to identify who is most susceptible and should be screened.
Currently, doctors use imaging technology and blood tests to identify lung cancer, but neither test is perfect and there are often false-negative or false-positive results. The Moon Shots program will work to develop improved diagnostic tests into commercial grade products that can be used globally, he said. “That one thing will save over 30,000 lives just in the United States” each year, DePinho said.
About 100 million people globally lose their lives to cancer each year, said DePinho, but there is now a “confluence of game-changing technological advances” — like the ability to map an individual’s genome in a few hours, or manipulate genes at will — that, if applied correctly in a clinical environment, could dramatically accelerate cancer survival rates.
"The process of bringing this amount of horsepower together in such a focused manner is not normally seen in academic medicine and is valuable in and of itself," Frank McCormick, president of the American Association for Cancer Research, said in a prepared statement. He led the review panel that selected the specific programs and experts assembled for the teams.
The program is estimated to cost $3 billion in the first 10 years. DePinho said MD Anderson has tens of millions of dollars to start the program, but its continuation will depend on additional philanthropic donations, research grants and other funding sources. “It is clearly one of the greatest risks that ... we will fail to receive sufficient support,” he said.
He said the data generated from the program’s activities should make the institution more competitive when applying for private, state and federal grants, which are “scarce resources.”
MD Anderson has received $127.7 million from 103 state grants through the Cancer Research and Prevention Institute of Texas from 2009 to the present. Through CPRIT, which was approved by Texas voters in a constitutional amendment in 2007, the state will issue $3 billion total in grants to fund cancer-related research. So far, CPRIT has awarded 429 grants for a total of $760 million.
“There are critics, but someone has to do it and who is better poised” than MD Anderson, UT Chancellor Francisco Cigarroa said at the press conference. A physician and survivor of testicular cancer, Cigarroa said that the UT Board of Regents “will do everything that we can to facilitate that these launches are successful.”