published Saturday, September 22nd, 2012

A new war against cancer

Cancer death rates have been falling since the 1990s, but that's cold comfort to the estimated 1.5 million Americans who will be diagnosed with the disease or the more than half million who will die from it this year. A massive new effort, announced Friday by Houston's MD Anderson Cancer Center, is designed to significantly reduce deaths from several forms of the disease by the end of the decade. The unprecedented endeavor holds great promise but includes no guarantees.

Nevertheless, the project is worth an investment estimated at $3 billion over 10 years. The new approach to finding cures and lowering death rates for certain kinds of cancers has a unique genesis — President John F. Kennedy's pledge in Houston and elsewhere that the United States would go to the moon before the end of the 1960s.

Indeed, there are echoes of the Kennedy approach to scientific achievement in the Anderson announcement. Dr. Ronald DePinho, president of the cancer treatment and research center, says he was inspired by Kennedy's words and that the new effort will be called the "Moon Shots Program." The ultimate success of the program will be determined, of course, by results, not historical allusions or a catch name.

MD Anderson seems uniquely qualified to lead what seems to be a well-planned war on cancer that will start in February. It is the nation's largest cancer center with a proven record in treatment and research. It has a head start in funding. DePinho said Friday that the center already has "tens of millions" of dollars in hand to begin the program.

The "Moon Shots" program will follow two tracks, officials report. "One," DePinho says, is to apply the existing knowledge, to make a near-term impact in this decade. The second is to accept the fact that much research remains to be done to ultimately cure the disease." The goal is " to dramatically accelerate the pace of converting scientific discoveries into clinical advances that reduce cancer deaths." The approach wins praise from experts.

Dr. Otis Brawley, chief medical officer of the American Cancer Society, which has no role in the project, says of the program outlined Friday: "I'm thrilled to see somebody take the lead. The results that I see him promising, [in raising money and fighting cancer] in my mind are reasonable."

Though the Anderson program specifically targets myelodysplastic syndrome, two types of leukemia, melanoma, triple negative breast and ovarian cancer and lung and prostate cancer, the knowledge gained in the "Moon Shot" program surely will be beneficial to those who study and treat other forms of the disease, as well.

Anderson doctors say they believe that dying from some forms of cancer can eventually be as rare as dying from pneumonia. Given cancer's current toll, that's hard to believe, but if the program announced Friday brings medicine closer to that goal it will make history.

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