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DePinho Bets MD Anderson Credibility On His Cancer “Moon Shot” Program
Later this month, at MD Anderson Cancer Center, Ronald DePinho will
announce the details of something he unabashedly calls the “moon shot,”
a plan for dramatic reduction of mortality for at least five cancers.
The date of the announcement—Sept. 21—wasn’t arrived at by chance.
It comes five decades and nine days after President John F. Kennedy’s
“we choose to go to the moon” speech, delivered at Rice University, also in Houston.
MD Anderson President DePinho is by no means the first cancer politician-scientist
to risk angering the gods and nature by promising a giant leap toward the cure.
Vows of this sort were a prominent part of political buildup that produced the
National Cancer Act of 1971 and have resurfaced regularly since.
The most recent official to pledge to defeat cancer was former NCI director,
former FDA commissioner—and former MD Anderson official—Andrew von Eschenbach.
DePinho’s moon shot is all the more ambitious, because it emanates from a cancer
center, not from NCI or the White House. No blueprints have leaked out, and it’s not
at all clear how MD Anderson would play the role of mission control.
DePinho has been making bold promises since coming to Houston a year ago,
but has moderated his stance in recent months, inserting some caveats and refraining
from using the word “cure.” Yet, even qualified, the words “moon shot” are loaded.
The analogy implies that advances in basic science have made cancer into a
cluster of engineering problems—akin to the problems Kennedy had pledged to solve
to reach the moon.
In an interview with The Cancer Letter, DePinho said that new understanding
of cancer makes the moon shot approach feasible.
“We have reached a point where there is a confluence of technological advances
and significant conceptual breakthroughs and clinical proof of concept, such has
harnessing the power of the immune system, affecting cell cycle, altering apoptotic
responses, and a variety of other hallmarks for cancer where we have drugs that target
those hallmarks result in clinical responses, some of which are quite dramatic, that
puts us in a position to say that if we organize ourselves in a comprehensive way,
in an integrated way, from prevention to early detection to prognostication to
treatment and survivorship and recurrence, that we can significantly reduce mortality
in this decade for certain cancers,” he said.
“There are some cancers where we’re showing very impressive progress, if we
apply what we already know today in a way that is translated and reduced to practice
to help patients—in the area of early detection, for example, or in the area of
combining very potent drugs with very significant clinical responses—we will dramatically
reduce mortality in those cancers.”