One oncologist’s thoughts on the “cancer moonshot”



For anyone in health care, one of the high points of President Obama’s last State of the Union address came in one paragraph, five sentences tucked in the middle. He didn’t set a deadline, or prescribe an agenda, or promise vast resources, but he suggested this might be the time to get rid of cancer. Here’s how he phrased it:

“Last year, Vice President Biden said that with a new moonshot, America can cure cancer. Last month, he worked with this Congress to give scientists at the National Institutes of Health the strongest resources that they’ve had in over a decade. (Applause.) So tonight, I’m announcing a new national effort to get it done. And because he’s gone to the mat for all of us on so many issues over the past 40 years, I’m putting Joe in charge of Mission Control. (Applause.) For the loved ones we’ve all lost, for the families that we can still save, let’s make America the country that cures cancer once and for all. (Applause.)”

This stimulated discussion. News outlets speculated whether it was a bold leap forward or just business as usual. But many cancer specialists, despite memories of President Nixon’s well-intended but unsuccessful effort to triumph the War on Cancer in 1971, were energized by his words.

ScienceLife spoke with Tanguy Seiwert, MD—assistant professor of medicine at the University of Chicago, a specialist on the biology and treatment of head and neck cancers—about the potential of this effort and the renewed enthusiasm it has brought to the field.

ScienceLife: In 1971, President Richard Nixon declared war on cancer. He underestimated his opponent. Why is this announcement generating so much discussion?

SL: What has changed in the 45 years since Nixon’s War on Cancer began. What have we learned and will that make a difference?

SL: There are hundreds of varieties of cancer. Do we have to discover effective therapies for each one?

SL: How does the University of Chicago fit into this project? Which parts of the problem  is this institution well suited to solve?

SL: Much of the substantive and lasting progress against cancer involved prevention, especially the reduction in smoking. How important will prevention and early detection be in the coming efforts?

SL: How can we make sure the benefits of screening and treatment are extended to the disadvantaged, those who lack resources, especially good access to health care?

SL: Taking care of cancer patients must be a rewarding but overwhelming responsibility. Could recent gains in treating cancer and the possibilities on the horizon make your profession less stressful and more rewarding?

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