Moonshot to Cure Cancer: Hype or Hope?

Maurie Markman, MD


January 29, 2016

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Hello. I'm Dr Maurie Markman from Cancer Treatment Centers of America in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. I wanted to briefly discuss what is on the minds of many people these days, and that's the recent announcement by the President of the United States in his State of the Union address about a "moonshot" project—a major focus by the government and others—to find a cure for cancer.

There has been a lot of commentary about this, some very positive and some not so positive. There was a commentary in The New York Times that questioned this because we've had a war on cancer, and this kind of effort [previously], and obviously there hasn't been a cure for cancer.[1]

I would like to make one very general observation. I think the focus of this conversation on finding a cure for cancer is a bit misplaced. We certainly now know that cancer is not one disease, it's not 100 diseases, and it's not 1000 diseases. Cancer is tens of thousands of different diseases based on unique molecular characteristics of cancer within an individual patient. The idea of finding a cure for a single illness, I believe, is somewhat misplaced.

However, I think the concept of a moonshot is very valid in that we are now talking about an incredible era in front of us where we actually have the ability to make enormous strides forward based upon our increasing knowledge of the molecular biology of individual cancers.

The idea is that we would create an infrastructure that would make it possible to move advances forward much faster and that we could get all government agencies working in sync, as one might, for example, with a unified focus on landing a man on the moon. Let's get the academics to work together. Let's get the government to work together. Let's get all industry to work together. Let's come up with a strategy that will reduce or, I would argue, eliminate the unnecessary barriers to moving new ideas and new products into the testing phase. Not proving they're going to work, because we don't know what the testing will show; but instead of taking 3, 5, 10 years to test new drugs, let's get this done in 6 months or a year, maximum.

We know, for example, that 2% of cancer patients participate in clinical trials, and there are many reasons for this. But just think: If we got to 20% of cancer patients because we reduced the barriers, that's still only 1 in 5 patients, but it's 10 times more individuals. If these patients agree—and if they think this therapy might help them, I suspect they would agree—we will be able to advance our knowledge so much faster. That, to me, is what the moonshot is all about. It is about reducing barriers and creating an infrastructure to make it possible that this incredible new world of molecular medicine can be translated into new strategies that will benefit patients with cancer now and patients who will, unfortunately, develop cancer in the future. Thank you for your attention.


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