Why We Can't Do a Cancer Moonshot

Jan 15 2016 Published by under Research issues

The moment was beautiful, Obama announcing that Biden would direct our next public effort, a moonshot, to cure cancer. Of course, this will not happen with cancer or any other disease that comes to mind.

First, cancer is more than one disease. It affects multiple organs in multiple ways through multiple mechanisms. Most diseases that kill in the US right now could be described this way. Even diabetes, mostly driven by obesity, probably results from a variety of genetic and environmental mechanisms. If we are talking about a single, well-characterized disorder with a single cause, we might be able to do something in a 12-year window.

The bigger problem is we do not know enough about this stuff. When Sputnik launched, we had the same knowledge base as the Soviets. We understood rocketry and astroscience enough to make a moon landing happen. Sputnik pushed the resources to the project. The basic science and technology was available; it was an incremental, if huge, project.

We are not there with most forms of cancer. We do not understand the basic biology well enough yet.

After discovering insulin, Banting turned to cancer research. He made no inroads there. I can remember Nixon declaring war on cancer shortly after the moon landing. We have come a long way since then, but the battles still rage on.

If we really want to cure diseases, we need to fund a wide variety of research ranging from the most basic sciences to clinical studies. We can never predict what finding will provide the key to a breakthrough, no matter how good we believe our peer-review system may be. It may be in a seemingly unrelated field.

We need sustainable growth of the budgets for the NIH and NSF. That will, someday, help us overcome the multitude of cancers and other disorders that we face.

2 responses so far

  • E-rook says:

    With Siddhartha Mukherjee's "The Emperor of all Maladies," which won a Pulitzer in 2014, laying out a pretty good timeline of Nixon's war on cancer, and seeming to come to the same conclusion as your post, I was surprised this got past Obama's science advisors.

  • […] reported on coverage from The New York Times, Scientific American, and others including blogger Whizbang.  The NYT coverage included calls for more funding of cancer research by the US government, […]

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