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MD Anderson Launches $3 Billion 'Moon Shot' to Fight Cancer

Aiming high. MD Anderson President Ronald DePinho will lead a "moon shot" attack on eight cancers.

Wikimedia Commons/MDACC

The country's biggest cancer center, the University of Texas (UT) MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, today unveiled what it calls a "moon shot" plan to dramatically improve survival for several types of cancer over the next decade. Some outside researchers are cringing at the notion that cancer can be conquered by one institute.

Behind the plan is MD Anderson's colorful president, Ronald DePinho, who came to the center a year ago from the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston. DePinho compares the program to President John F. Kennedy's speech 50 years in Houston announcing a goal of sending Americans to the moon. At that point in space exploration, "We had solid knowledge and we also had maturing technologies to get started," DePinho said at a press conference today. The cancer field, he said, is also seeing "a confluence of game-changing technological advances that allow us to understand the fundamental underpinnings of this disease."

The Moon Shots Program aims to "significantly increase patient survival" over the next decade by forming large teams of researchers and clinicians who will focus on specific cancers. The cancers are acute myeloid leukemia, myelodysplastic syndrome, chronic lymphocytic leukemia, melanoma, lung cancer, prostate cancer, a type of breast cancer known as triple-negative, and ovarian cancer.

DePinho says the program will involve basic and applied research, such as tumor genome sequencing, as well as efforts to put existing knowledge into practice—such as studies suggesting that screening heavy smokers for lung cancer with a new kind of x-ray imaging can save lives. A Web site describes goals such as: "Integrate molecular profiling in early-stage and locally advanced lung cancer to increase number of patients who are cured by 10-20%." The program will also include public awareness campaigns to discourage smoking, for instance.

The institute has "tens of millions of dollars" to get started and expects to spend up to $3 billion over 10 years on the program, drawing on funding from both public and private sources, DePinho says. It will not disrupt MD Anderson's broader $700-million-a-year research program, he added.

The moon shot metaphor brings to mind previous goals set for cancer, such as Richard Nixon's 1971 war on cancer. Another example is former National Cancer Institute Director Andrew von Eschenbach's goal of eliminating suffering and death from cancer by 2015. Some researchers say such attempts to reduce cancer to an engineering problem ignore the disease's complexity and the unpredictability of science.

"The problem is not just one engineering task; it's a hundred different scientific problems. We're making steady progress, but to say we're going to eliminate suffering and even prevent death is fraught with a lot of difficulty," says Bruce Chabner of Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston. Chabner also points out that pushing back cancer is a job bigger than one institution. "It's going to take all the talent around the world."

Lung cancer researcher John Minna of UT Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas likes the idea of "uniting everybody as a team," but he also wonders whether "this is the right of one institution." Some researchers suggest the program is actually a public relations effort to raise funds at a time when federal grants are scarce.

The announcement follows a bumpy first year for DePinho at MD Anderson. Last spring, he and his wife, researcher Lynda Chin, came under scrutiny after the state-funded Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas (CPRIT) awarded a $20 million incubator grant to MD Anderson and Rice University after a 3-week review. CPRIT's chief scientific officer, Nobelist Alfred Gilman, resigned partly over the grant, which was withdrawn and will be resubmitted again for a more in-depth review. Questions have also been raised involving DePinho's ties to companies.

Despite DePinho's problems, MD Anderson has lured some big names in the past year, including genomics researcher Andy Futreal from the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute in the United Kingdom. Another recruit is James Allison of the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York City, who had developed a widely heralded new immunotherapy drug for melanoma.