Invoking John F. Kennedy’s 50-year-old vow to put a man on the Moon within a decade, the director of the largest cancer treatment centre in the United States has launched an equally audacious quest.
At a news conference on 21 September, Ronald DePinho, the president of the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, told reporters that his institution would spend up to US$3 billion over ten years to attack eight cancers with its new ‘Moon Shots’ programme.
The goal: to dramatically accelerate discoveries that will reduce mortality from the following eight cancers: acute myeloid leukaemia/myelodysplastic syndrome, chronic lymphocytic leukaemia, melanoma, lung cancer, prostate cancer and triple-negative breast and ovarian cancers.
These “inaugural” Moon shots, DePinho said, were chosen by a panel of 25 experts led by Frank McCormick, the president of the American Association for Cancer Research. They looked at numerous proposals put forward by MD Anderson researchers in the time since DePinho took the helm at MD Anderson one year ago.
During the briefing, DePinho, who has encountered some controversy since coming to the Texas institution in 2011, did not shy away from expressing the breadth of his ambition.
“This is a great moment for all of us. Kennedy did not say: `We’re going to study how we’re going to go to the Moon.’ He said: `We’re going to go to the Moon.’ So we’re going to have a very goal-oriented mentality …to really truly make cancer history.”
He argued that an explosion of advances in areas from computation to genomics, attended by the sharply decreasing cost of gene sequencing, have made it an auspicious time to launch such a quest.
“A confluence of disruptive technologies has given us a very strong toolbox to make a decisive assault on the cancer problem,” he said, adding in this press release describing the Moon Shots Program: “curing cancer is in clearer sight than at any other time in history.”
DePinho said that he has “tens of millions of dollars in hand” from philanthropic and community donors to launch the programme and that future income — for instance from the licensing of drugs developed at MD Anderson in a unit that employs DePinho’s wife, scientist Lynda Chin — will be ploughed back into the programme.
Still, he conceded: “Clearly one of the greatest risks we have of this programme is that we will fail to receive sufficient support.”
Sceptics could be found within and outside the walls of the high-profile Houston institution. They noted that cancer is a terrifically complex and wily disease that adapts to outsmart therapies and most often cannot be defeated with simple solutions.
“You need to be careful about overpromising,” said one director of a major US cancer centre. “My concern is that we’ll raise [patients’] expectations when we really don’t have a strong basis for believing that we have everything in hand to move toward a cure.”
Others complained that it was unseemly for one institution to propose to bring down the cancer Goliath — and said that beating the disease will require recruiting the best of the best scientists and physicians the world over.
“You can’t attack cancer from just within the perimeter of MD Anderson Cancer Center. It’s absurd to exclude other investigators from other institutes,” said one MD Anderson faculty member, who asked not to be named. The faculty member also said that DePinho’s strategy — picking winners and losers among prospective cancer Moon shots — has been divisive. “He really pitted people against one another.”
Still, others praised DePinho’s ambition. “This is a courageous statement,” said University of Texas System Chancellor Francisco Cigarroa, a physician who survived testicular cancer when he was a surgical intern in 1984. “There are critics. But someone has to do [it]. And who is better poised to successfully launch these moon shots than MD Anderson?
DePinho found himself enmeshed in a very public controversy several months ago, after the $3-billion, taxpayer-funded Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas (CPRIT) speedily awarded an $18-million ‘business incubator’ grant to MD Anderson’s Institute for Applied Cancer Science, where DePinho’s wife, Chin, is chief scientist — without scientific review. The grant is now being re-reviewed.
DePinho also apologized after he promoted AVEO Oncology on a television talk show in May, without mentioning that he owned 542,000 shares in the company.