Anchored Activism

Issues affecting women with cancer

Friday, September 21, 2012

MD Anderson’s ‘Moon Shots’ Program Intends to Upend the Emperor of All Maladies

MD Anderson doesn’t make announcements. They make events.


Today’s news conference unveiling “Moon Shots,” a bold, $3 billion initiative directed at “dramatically improving” survivorship and reducing mortality in eight different cancers, did not disappoint.

 The evocative confidence of America’s space program, in a week that marked the 50th anniversary of President Kennedy’s famous speech and the last flyover of the Endeavor across Houston, was unmistakable.

If the imagery was on target to spell hope, so was the action-oriented attitude and language. Instead of the academic mantra of “publish or perish,” the motto underscoring the Moon Shots program is that discovery isn’t everything. Action is, and so is "upending the emperor of all maladies," as MD Anderson President Ronald A. DePinho, MD, put it.


MD Anderson's  “disruptive paradigm” brings six cross-functional teams together to address specific milestones and decrease mortality in acute myeloid leukemia/myelodysplastic syndromes, chronic lymphocytic leukemia, melanoma, lung cancer, prostate cancer, and surprisingly, triple-negative breast and serous ovarian cancers, two aggressive diseases with shared characteristics.


The global cancer burden?  An estimated 100 million are expected to die of cancer in this decade.

 At the most elemental level, Moon Shot teams will put existing knowledge about the molecular mechanisms to work. Gordon B. Mills, MD, PhD, Chair and Professor in the Department of Systems Biology and head of the breast and ovarian cancer team, explained that efforts at reducing mortality in these cancers are more than genetics.


“We are working beyond the science and applying the knowledge that already exists to put it all together,” he said. Within five years the team seeks to validate new ways to stratify at-risk women and develop other protein-based biomarkers (like CA-125) to form new risk-assessment models, as one example.


At a deeper level, each Moon Shot team, he explained, will benefit from a shared infrastructure of 12 high-quality, science and technological platforms that are in development now. These range from clinical genomics, to a center for co-clinical trials, to massive data analytics and patient omics, and detailed analysis of genes and proteins from biospecimens. What this means is that a sample of blood or tissue can be extracted, profiled for mutations, the data analyzed, applied and translated back into the clinical setting in a more streamlined and efficient manner.


The cancers targeted were selected by a panel of 25 internal and external experts led by Frank McCormick, PhD., Director of the University of California, San Francisco Cancer Center and President of the American Association for Cancer Research.


Doug Ulman, Chief Executive Officer of Livestrong, said the ambitious program is re-organizing the way cancer is tackled, from prevention, through early detection, treatment, and survivorship. “I have great respect for those who put audacious goals out there for us to strive towards,” he said. “The impact of this new plan could be transformational.”


In a climate of funding uncertainties and diminished expectations, when only eight percent of grants submitted to NCI are funded, new ideas are to be applauded. “We’re at a time when we have new knowledge, but the only way we’re going to make dramatic progress is a large-scale concerted effort,” Otis Brawley, MD, Chief Medical Officer and Executive Vice President of the American Cancer Society, told the Houston Chronicle. He noted in that article that although he had concerns before that the program might “overpromise what it could deliver," the final mission statement is "very appropriate," and that “if MD Anderson is the one to lead that effort, I’ll praise them for that.”