MD Anderson Cancer Center Shoots for the Moon

Houston's MD Anderson Cancer Center targets diagnosis, treatment and research of eight types of cancer in an ambitious program.

Doctors at MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston say they will attempt to dramatically speed up the pace of cancer research under a new heavily funded initiative. (Photo: Bruce Forster/Getty Images)

Sep 24, 2012· 2 MIN READ
Shari Roan is an award-winning health writer based in Southern California.

In a dramatic announcement meant to raise the bar on cancer research and treatment, officials at the MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston say they'll launch an ambitious program early next year aimed at improving the survival rates of eight types of cancer and creating a new paradigm for speeding up all cancer research.

The medical center, long known for its excellence in cancer treatment, is calling the program "Moon Shots" to reflect the can-do spirit and dedication that enabled NASA's man-on-the-moon project in the 1960s.

"The Moon Shots program is not about the next experiment," Dr. Ronald DePinho, president of the MD Anderson Cancer Center said in a video on the center's Web site. "It's not about chipping away at the death rates year by year. It's about focusing our energies on every aspect of the cancer journey, from prevention to early diagnosis to treatment and survivorship."

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One in every two men and one in every three women will experience a cancer diagnosis in their lifetime, he noted.

A similarly devoted effort to eradicate cancer —President Richard Nixon's 1971 War on Cancer—had disappointing results. Since then, researchers have discovered cancer is a far more complex disease that requires a diverse arsenal of treatments individualized to each cancer and, to some extent, to each patient.

Now, however, advances in genetics and biotechnology have made the personalized model of cancer prevention and treatment a real possibility.

The infusion of funds, institutional support and a shared research infrastructure will help the Anderson teams develop new tests and treatments in record time, according to the center's leaders. In the past, most research teams operated independently, with their own organization and funding mechanisms. But that left many programs under-funded and too small to quickly adapt to emerging science.

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A major aim of the Moon Shots program will be to improve the time it takes to move promising treatments from research labs into doctors' hands. Set to begin early next year, the project will initially target eight types of cancer:

  • Acute myeloid leukemia and myelodysplastic syndrome
  • Chronic lymphocytic leukemia
  • Lung cancer
  • Melanoma
  • Prostate cancer
  • Triple-negative breast cancer and ovarian cancer

These eight diseases, assigned to six research teams, were chosen because they're most likely to produce fast, measurable gains in patient care and survivorship. Much is already known about the prevention and treatment of these eight illnesses, and MD Anderson Cancer Center staff includes top experts on those diseases, DePinho says.

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"The reason that (chronic lymphocytic leukemia) is a great candidate for these new initiatives is that it's very easy for us to access the malignant cells because they're in the bloodstream" Dr. Michael Keating said. Keating, a professor specializing in leukemia at the MD Anderson Cancer Center, added, "That enables us to analyze the genetics of the disease in great detail."

Several immune-system and drug treatments already exist for CLL. Likewise, emerging research has provided clues to understanding how melanoma arises, said Dr. Jeffrey Gershenwald, a professor of surgical oncology at MD Anderson Cancer Center.

"There's been a rapid understanding of the molecular underpinnings of melanoma," he said. "What we'd like to do is increase survival from less than two years for most patients with advanced melanoma to three to five years."

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The program's goals are bold. The team working on breast and ovarian cancer —up to 175 Anderson faculty members from more than 15 departments—said it hopes within five years to be able to find reliable methods to diagnose ovarian cancer at an early, curable stage. Because ovarian cancer produces few symptoms in its earliest phases, many women already have advanced disease by the time they're diagnosed. A test to detect ovarian cancer earlier, such as a blood test, has long eluded researchers around the world.

Although eight cancers will be assigned to the Moon Shots program, research into other forms of cancer will not suffer, DePinho said, adding: "What we learn with these first Moon Shots programs will advance our knowledge to all other cancers."

The first 10 years of the Moon Shots program will cost an estimated $3 billion, which will come from institutional earnings and commercialization of new products, research grants and philanthropy.

Do you think that another version of the war on cancer can result in bigger gains this time around?