The National Cancer Moonshot initiative continues to gain momentum, and June 29 Vice President Joe Biden convened the Cancer Moonshot Summit where leaders across the spectrum engaged in a national dialogue on how to accelerate progress toward ending cancer. Participants included the American Association for Cancer Research (AACR) Chief Executive Officer Margaret Foti, PhD, MD (hc), and President Nancy Davidson, MD. Prior to the summit, AACR showed their commitment to the initiative and furthering cancer science by hosting a congressional briefing, “Seizing Today's Opportunities to Accelerate Cancer Research,” June 28. Davidson, who is also the Director of the University of Pittsburgh Cancer Institute, shared her thoughts on the Moonshot Initiative as well as her goals for not only her presidency, but also cancer research at large.
What are your areas of emphasis and focus for your presidency?
“All presidents have the responsibility to be good stewards for the organization, so of course our major emphasis will not change; we are always interested in doing everything we can as a professional society to maximize our impact on the prevention and cure of cancer.
“During my term, I will continue some of the initiatives of my predecessors, such as Project GENIE, which is an effort to collect and use genomic information. Additionally, we will be expanding on the efforts of former AACR President Carlos L. Arteaga, MD, to train the next generation of scientists and bring new people into the field.
“Special areas that I will focus on this year include doing everything we can to support the vice president's Cancer Moonshot Initiative, as well as a major emphasis on cancer prevention. Other goals include a closer look at the field of convergence, which involves bringing together diverse scientific disciplines in addition to biomedicine to think about how to best tackle the problems of cancer.”
What are your thoughts on the National Cancer Moonshot Initiative? What role has the AACR played thus far, and how will the organization continue to contribute to this national effort?
“I think everyone is excited about the National Cancer Moonshot Initiative; we are very grateful to President Obama and Vice President Biden for putting cancer and biomedical research at the forefront of our public thinking.
“We are thankful for the enormous amount of effort the vice president has expended to catalyze interactions between all stakeholders in the cancer research and cancer care effort. I had the chance to be at the Moonshot Summit and it was very exciting to see that energy in the room.
“AACR is committed to helping Vice President Biden bring the goals of Moonshot to fruition and to make sure that the enthusiasm and the action items go forward into 2017 and beyond, especially as we transition to the next presidential administration. This is going to require substantial efforts from Congress to make sure the full and sustainable funding that is necessary for the research part of this initiative takes place. As an organization, we are devoted to promoting that bipartisan effort that will be required to make that a reality.
“To date, AACR has been very active in this initiative. Twenty of the 28 panelists on the NCI Blue Ribbon Panel, led by NCI Acting Director Douglas Lowy, MD, and tasked with ensuring that the Moonshot Initiative is grounded in the best science, are AACR members. As an organization, we are providing the expertise and the personnel required to take this initiative to the next level.
“One important constituency that is not well-represented in the Blue Ribbon Panel and its activities is the voice of the younger investigators and our organization has taken it upon ourselves to connect with these young investigators from diverse backgrounds, disciplines, and institutions. Our efforts give these young people the chance to share their voice because they will ultimately be the face of Moonshot in the future.”
Can you tell us more about the AACR's recent congressional briefing on the Moonshot as well as the Cancer Moonshot Summit the vice president convened?
“As I mentioned, AACR feels the voice of the young investigator needs to be showcased. And we also think it is part of our job to make sure our government leaders are as educated as possible regarding cancer, in general, and, in particular, some of the aspects of the Moonshot Initiative that may not be as publicized as we might all wish.
“Therefore, AACR decided to hold a congressional briefing on Capitol Hill to discuss the Moonshot Initiative. We had the opportunity to host Dr. Lowy and five of our young investigators during a panel discussion at the event. The open forum allowed us to reach a number of congressional aides regarding the importance of Moonshot efforts, where we stand with biomedical cancer research, and insights from the next generation of researchers.
“It was a terrific opportunity for those who were in attendance to hear from Dr. Lowy directly about the efforts of the Blue Ribbon Panel. Additionally, we also had the chance to hear from these five young investigators who discussed the challenge of attracting and sustaining new scientists as well as the need to improve access to clinical trials and the importance of basic science, which can often get lost in these discussions.
“These young investigators are representative of a larger group of individuals who see the opportunities that exist in cancer science and are prepared to step up and take on the mantle of responsibility, but they cannot do so without the necessary support from the field at large.
“Both the congressional briefing and the Cancer Moonshot Summit convened by the vice president were lively dialogues between all involved. With a diverse group of passionate individuals fighting for a common goal, we will continue to make headway against cancer through the Moonshot Initiative and similar programs.”
How will the AACR help attract young investigators to cancer research and support them their first critical years?
“AACR has come to the realization that, as dedicated as my many peers and I are to solving the cancer problem, it probably isn't going to happen during the course of our careers; so we need to make sure that we are bringing into the field the individuals who are going to carry the torch and continue to make a difference in cancer research, prevention, and patient outcomes.
“This has been a priority for AACR since its beginning. Currently, we have programs that span the continuum from meetings—large and small—and scientific publications to our grant portfolios and special programs geared to young investigators. Every year we have a special session for high school students at our annual meeting because you can never start too soon. It is an incredible opportunity for us to bring someone into the field early and help them find success.
“We also have programs for college students as well as young trainees who are already in the field of cancer science or medicine through various postdoctoral fellowships. Opportunities are also available to new faculty members, including the NextGen program, which gives promising junior faculty members the privilege to present their work at the annual meeting.
“As an organization we are working diligently to make sure that these young investigators have a great scientific platform, as well as career development and mentorship opportunities that will help them succeed and build a career that will contribute to the success of cancer research.”
One of your priorities as AACR president is to ensure equal opportunity for all individuals passionate about cancer research to enter the field. What is the AACR doing to help achieve this goal?
“Just as we are doing everything we can to cultivate young investigators, we are also dedicated to broadening our thinking when it comes to who might be passionate about cancer research. As an organization, we are embracing areas and disciplines that aren't normally included in our field.
“The importance of biomedical scientists makes perfect sense, but we have come to realize that we also need computational biologists, physicists, mathematicians, and chemists. We need people who are scientifically savvy in other areas, such as engineering. And then, through teamwork, we can utilize their combined talents and their thought processes to tackle the problems of cancer.
“Additionally, we are very oriented toward the international problem of cancer; cancer is absolutely a global problem. It is an enormous problem in North America and Western Europe, but it is an emerging problem in most of the rest of the globe. Therefore, we need to make sure that there are opportunities to be involved in the war against cancer around the world and we are trying to support this effort. In fact, this year we are sponsoring our first scientific meeting in Africa. This is a continent where people often think about the scourge of infectious diseases, which is certainly a major issue, but in a lot of places, including much of Africa, the incidence of chronic diseases like cancer is increasing. This meeting is an opportunity to reach out globally and make sure our global scientists are being embraced as we work together to reach our common goal.
“AACR wants to maximize opportunities within our society that extend beyond research scientists and cancer care providers. We need our patient advocates at the table as well as the individuals involved in pharma, biotech start-up, philanthropy, and government. All of these people are part of the solution to cancer, so we want to make sure that we are an organization that is embracing individuals working across the continuum.
“AACR is working toward these goals by virtue of the many things we just talked about. We are a convening force that has the ability to bring people to the table to tackle critical issues. We are committed to educating not only our members, but anyone who is interested in cancer research efforts.
“It is an exciting time for us as an organization. This next year we are going to celebrate our 110th anniversary as a professional society. We were founded in 1907 by 11 scientists and now we are 37,000 members strong. However, as we celebrate this milestone it is with a focus on the fact that we aren't done yet. Much has been accomplished in cancer, but there is still much to do and we are dedicated to continuing that forward progress in an even more accelerated manner over the years to come.”
Catlin Nalley is an associate editor