America’s ‘cancer moonshot’ will take more than a financial commitment

Through data sharing and collaboration, the research community can help the US meet the challenge President Obama compared to the historic moon landing

As Senior VP of Global Strategic Alliances at Elsevier, Brad Fenwick is responsible for the development of strategic academic partnerships. Recently he was quoted by Politico and in a letter to the editor of The New York Times about President Obama’s “cancer moonshot” challenge in the State of the Union Address. Here, Dr. Fenwick writes about how improved collaboration — and the willingness to take risks — can help researchers meet today's moonshot challenge.

Buzz Aldrin salutes the US flag during the first moon walk in 1969. (Photo: NASA / Neil A. Armstrong)For those of us of a certain age, we remember President John F. Kennedy’s declaration to land on the moon at the end of the 1960s. He challenged the scientific community, saying:

We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things not because they are easy but because they are hard; because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one we intend to win …

Less than 10 years later, millions of people around the world heard, "That's one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind," as Neil Armstrong set foot on the moon. It was thrilling. An iconic moment in time and testament to the extraordinary achievement by thousands of science and engineering professionals working together and supported with funding appropriate to the mission.

Now all these years later, we find ourselves on the precipice of a similar challenge — find a cure for cancer. It might be easier to send someone to Mars.

The challenges are legion. Funding of course is a primary issue. As mentioned in my recent letter published in The New York Times, it will require a significant dollar commitment. The halcyon days of large federal budgets for research are unfortunately very likely behind us as they compete with other funding requests. Basic research — often the foundation of many extraordinary scientific, medical and technical breakthroughs — is given short shrift or seen as frivolous.

Because of this shift in funding priorities, risk-taking and a willingness to share data within the research community are often in short supply. No one wants to jeopardize their funding, and everyone guards their work protectively – a point Politico’s Arthur Allen raises in his recent article “Biden’s cancer bid exposes rift among researchers”

For many genetic studies in particular, the only way to get reliable, replicable results is to contribute to studies that amass huge amounts of data — and thereby surrender the glory of publishing alone. That’s not an easy sell to those in the medical trenches. Researchers need to publish original articles to advance their careers.

From a financial and economic perspective, the price of cancer is high for both the patient and society as a whole. The Agency for Healthcare research and Quality (AHRQ) estimates that the direct medical costs (total of all health care costs) for cancer in the US in 2011 were $88.7 billion. The emotional toll on families is beyond calculation. Chances are you, as I do, have someone close to you who has or had some form of it. In fact, in the United States, cancer will occur in one of every two men and one in every three women during their lifetime.

As a researcher, I understand the importance of protecting one’s research, but it is crucial to have agreement within our community to share methodologies and findings. There is a strong code among researchers to share their data that is linked to publications, which is rigorously enforced by journal editors and reviewers. But, we can do more.

Today's interconnected research environment means that researchers anywhere, anytime can connect to each other to share data, collaborate on projects and leverage centers of expertise in cancer research wherever they may be. This is already being done via sharing platforms like Mendeley, where researchers actively exchange findings and collaborate at no cost. In addition, the recent founding of the open access  journal Genomics Data, and its signature “Data in Brief” articles, provides a means to share data, get credit for its creation and open up additional avenues of collaboration.

President Kennedy’s “moonshot” speech was extraordinarily prophetic, and I encourage everyone to read it. Substitute the word cancer for moonshot, and it is as relevant today as was 50 years ago.

Finding the answers to cure and prevent cancer will not be easy, but we should choose to pursue this goal because, just like the space program, it offers the opportunity to bring out the very best in our society. And like the space program, we will develop and discover other things that we cannot anticipate.

It will be the best shot we have at a "moonshot" for cancer.

Elsevier Connect Contributor

Brad Fenwick, DVM, PhDAs Senior VP of Global Strategic Alliances at Elsevier, Dr. Brad Fenwick is responsible for the development of strategic academic partnerships. He joined Elsevier in 2012 as Senior VP for Global Strategic Alliances. Previously, he held research executive roles as Vice Chancellor for Research and Engagement at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, where he also served as Professor of Pathobiology in the College of Veterinary Medicine, and VP for Research at Virginia Tech.

In 2011, he was named a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science for distinguished contributions in the field of veterinary and comparative medicine, scientific association leadership, editorial review, and research program development and administration. He holds a Doctor of Veterinary Medicine (DVM) degree from Kansas State University and a PhD in comparative pathology from the University of California, Davis.

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