Can America Cure Cancer?


Update: That spirit of optimism took the global stage on January 19, when MSK Physician-in-Chief José Baselga and physician-scientist Charles Sawyers joined Vice President Biden and a distinguished group of academic experts and other leaders for a roundtable discussion at the World Economic Forum in Davos-Klosters, Switzerland. The panel discussed potential opportunities to advance the fight against cancer. They identified cutting-edge areas of research and care that hold the most promise and discussed how technological innovation and data science advancements could speed the pace of progress.

Dr. Baselga emphasized the dominant role of the huge amounts of data being generated by genetic screening, which must be analyzed to provide insights into the mutations that drive different types of cancer. Dr. Sawyers is spearheading a new initiative called Project GENIE, a multicenter venture that aims to find better ways to interpret this abundance of information.

Dr. Sawyers also suggested that the FDA could allow accelerated approvals for combination therapies, which are becoming more common as researchers identify cancer pathways that can be blocked by targeted therapies.

The experts also discussed the potential of exciting new technologies, such as the gene-editing tool CRISPR, and nanotechology, which can provide better ways to image tumors and potentially deliver therapies to precise locations.

“The vice president’s passion and commitment to accelerating progress against cancer is palpable,” said Dr. Sawyers. “Meeting him in person and hearing him speak convinced me that he will not let go of this challenge. I was impressed by what he has already learned about cancer research — what a great champion for the cause.”

Original Post: During Tuesday night’s State of the Union speech, President Obama referred to Vice President Biden’s ambitious plan to cure cancer. He called the notion a “moonshot,” referencing the Apollo 11 spaceflight project, where American scientists focused all of their efforts to put the first human on the moon in 1969. “It is a comparison,” points out Memorial Sloan Kettering Physician-in-Chief José Baselga, “that comes to show that this is an ambitious goal.”

“For many years we lamented the relative spending cuts that the National Institutes of Health and the National Cancer Institute have endured that sometimes limited our ability to make the fastest possible progress,” says Clifford Hudis, Vice President for Government Relations and Chief Advocacy Officer at MSK. “With this new initiative, we should see increased resources and even better coordination and collaboration to help accelerate the development of new treatments and better outcomes for patients.”

The idea of “curing” cancer is reminiscent of Richard Nixon’s 1971 declaration of a multimillion dollar “War on Cancer” that was supposed to have conquered the disease within ten years. That didn’t happen.

We now know that cancer is far more complex than we originally thought — and is in fact not one disease but many, with myriad ways to circumvent our most potent therapeutic arrows. “This is big, beyond the moonshot,” notes Dr. Baselga, “like shooting at the whole universe at the same time. There are so many hundreds of tumor types. It is so complex that, more than a moonshot, I would say this is a galactic effort.”

Can America realistically cure cancer once and for all? Considering the complexity of the issue, likely not for all forms of cancer. Yet there are reasons to be optimistic that greatly reducing the burden of cancer is within our grasp, especially with the rapid progress in areas like immunotherapy and gene sequencing. “This could be the decade in which we aren’t going to cure all cancer,” says Dr. Baselga, “but we can really decrease by a lot the number of patients that die from cancer.” Dr. Hudis adds, “The advances we seek don’t all have to be cures to be truly transformative for millions of patients and their families.”

Immunotherapy for advanced melanoma, for example, has transformed a disease that just a few years ago was almost a sure death sentence into one that in many cases can be cured — or at least put into remission for a decade or more. These therapeutic breakthroughs — many of them spearheaded at MSK — have given people new hope that curing at least some types of cancer is indeed within reach. In the next decade, through continued support of research, we will likely see the gains witnessed in melanoma extended to other cancer types. 

“I think this ought to be our decade, a decade that we move forward in a way that has never been seen in the history of medicine,” Dr. Baselga says.