“We’re at the end of the beginning,” is how Anna Barker, Ph.D., speaking during a May 20 panel discussion, described our progress in the War on Cancer. Sanford-Burnham hosted the event, What Will it Take to Cure Cancer?, at the San Diego Natural History Museum, as a benefit to its President’s Circle members, donors who contribute $1,000 or more annually. Dr. Barker, former deputy director of the National Cancer Institute (NCI), sat alongside Erkki Ruoslahti, M.D., Ph.D., distinguished professor and former president of Sanford-Burnham, Ron Andrews, president of medical sciences at Life Technologies, and Robert Abraham, Ph.D., senior vice president at Pfizer Worldwide Research. Together, they represented expertise along the continuum from basic scientific discovery to the production of drugs.
Mary Walshok, Ph.D., associate vice chancellor of public programs and dean of extension at the University of California, San Diego, moderated the panel discussion. She opened by asking how we are progressing toward curing or more effectively treating various cancers. The question prompted Dr. Barker’s response. She went on to say that the past 40 years since the U.S., as a nation, began a concerted effort to fight cancer, have been about collecting data. The sheer amount of information about cancer—including every type and subtype—and the vast amount of information contained provided by the sequence of the human genome have painted an incredibly complex picture. “Now we need to embrace complexity,” Dr. Barker said.
Dr. Abraham echoed her assessment of the War on Cancer, saying “[In the beginning], we thought we were dealing with a single enemy.” Cancer, as we now know, is not just one disease, but a complicated set of gene mutations and cell growth anomalies. Dr. Ruoslahti added that cancer’s mutability adds another layer of challenges. Just when it looks like one drug is effective, for example, the cancer may learn to defend against it.
Dr. Abraham added, “We are winning the war skirmish by skirmish.” His sense of hope was reinforced by the other panelists, each offering examples of diagnostics, treatments, and drug delivery systems that would not have been possible just 10 years ago. Advances in genomics, proteomics, and transcriptomics all present a wide range of opportunities to strike cancer at various points along its development; they also make battling cancer an increasingly personalized effort. The increased ability to “read” a patient’s unique tumor has brought about, as Dr. Barker put it, “a data tsunami.” (Did you know that to store the information in your genome digitally would take anywhere from two to 38 terrabytes?)
An added benefit of all the research on cancer in the past decades has been that science now recognizes cancer’s ties to other disease types. Dr. Abraham mentioned inflammation and metabolism as two examples that overlap with and influence cancer development. (It’s for that same reason that research centers dedicated to infectious and inflammatory diseases, diabetes, and obesity have grown out of Sanford-Burnham’s NCI-designated Cancer Center.)
As researchers and scientists across disciplines join forces, they will increasingly fine-tune their insights into cancer. The panelists all agreed on one thing that is necessary to move us in that direction: funding. Mr. Andrews remarked on the ongoing discussions in Congress about cutting the budget of the National Institutes of Health. “We need new sources of funding,” he said. “With the current ambiguity on Capitol Hill, we can’t simply rely on the government.” Members of the panel also remarked on the need for investment on the part of the private sector, and especially the need for philanthropy. “Informed philanthropy can take us much further than government money alone ever could,” said Dr. Barker.
In addition to philanthropy, Kristiina Vuori, M.D., Ph.D., Institute president and director of Sanford-Burnham’s NCI-designated Cancer Center, mentioned another potential source of much-needed funding for cancer research—Proposition 29, the California Cancer Research Act. If passed on June 5, this initiative would infuse the state of California with an estimated $735 million each year for research and facilities dedicated to cancer and other tobacco-related diseases.
One thing everyone seemed to agree on was that, while researching cancer comes with set-backs and frustration, the pace is accelerating tremendously. Mr. Andrews said, “The next 10 years are going to dwarf the last 15.”
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