by Steph Guerra

During his last State of the Union address, President Obama announced a new national effort for ‘a moonshot’ to cure cancer. He wants “America to be the country to cure cancer once and for all.” Still reeling from the premature loss of his son to brain cancer, Joe Biden is set to spearhead this major push for federal cancer research funding.

Cancer researchers from across the country have applauded this announcement, hoping that with this renewed support will come increased funding and institutional collaboration. More funding means more pre-clinical research to discover new drugs and more clinical trials to treat patients that currently have some form of cancer.

While no one bemoans having more funding in the field, cancer researchers are concerned about the rhetoric used to describe this new national effort. The moonshot analogy wrongly assumes that by reaching one specific end point, discovery, or treatment, we will get to a solution that will “cure cancer once and for all.” Unfortunately, years of research show us that this is not the case. Every tumor is different and often requires treatment specifically tailored to each individual. This means that every patient has his or her own moon that must be colonized and conquered. There is not one, but many, many moons to reach.

Cancer is not one disease, but an entire umbrella of diseases categorized by uncontrolled cell growth and tumor development. Lung cancer alone consists of four different subtypes categorized by the type of lung cell in which the tumor originated. Within these subtypes exist different subclasses of tumors. Even two patients with the exact same subtype and subclass of lung cancer have differences between their tumors that will affect the success and method of treatment! Our goals as cancer researchers right now are two-fold. First, we are searching for ways to better characterize individual patients’ tumors. We want to know why the tumors form and how to use this information to stop them from growing. Second, we are testing new technologies every day in preclinical animal models and patients. Such technologies include small molecule drugs, immunotherapies, and even early cancer detection tests.

Although treating cancer is not a one-size-fits all approach, this enthusiastic new focus on cancer research could help to develop systemic approaches to combat many types of tumors. Funding systemic approaches ensures that the new technologies developed as a result of this moonshot could lead to solutions for every patient. Such broad solutions include improving molecular diagnostics to characterize tumors, reinvigorating public health efforts in cancer prevention, determining how to better analyze large datasets, and creating grants that encourage collaboration among researchers. These and other big picture goals will ensure that personalized patient care moves forward—the only way that cures will be found for every cancer.

While the country’s leading cancer researchers recognize these challenges, it is also important that the public understands the discrepancy between the moonshot analogy and the battle against cancers. Yes, with hard work, collaboration, and new technologies, we are closer than ever to giving patients the best shot against this horrible class of diseases. But without instilling realistic expectations in the public arena, any small advances over the next ten years may be overlooked because we were promised the moon.

Steph Guerra is a PhD student working in the field of cancer research at Harvard Medical School and the co-director of SITN.

Cover image: By Pete Souza (White House Flickr account) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

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