M.D. Anderson adds six cancers to Moon Shots program

Three years into an ambitious attempt to dramatically reduce cancer deaths, M.D. Anderson Cancer Center is expanding its Moon Shots program to include more tumors considered virtual death sentences.

The institution will announce Thursday that it is adding at least six more cancers to the program, including the brain cancer glioblastoma and pancreatic and colorectal cancer. The diseases now covered by the initiative account for nearly 410,000 annual deaths, or about 70 percent of all yearly cancer fatalities.

“After an initial period laying the foundation, it is now time to extend the effort to new cancers,” said Dr. Ronald DePinho, president of M.D. Anderson. “Our knowledge has reached the point where we can assemble teams and projects to reduce death and suffering from these intractable diseases, chosen after rigorous review.”

The other new cancers targeted in the initiative are B-Cell lymphoma, high-risk multiple myeloma and any caused by the human papillomavirus, which is best known for causing cervical cancer but also can lead to throat and anal cancer.

The diseases initially targeted by the program, which was announced in 2012, were lung, prostate and ovarian cancer, melanoma, two common types of leukemia and another blood cancer.

DePinho said he expects M.D. Anderson will likely continue adding other cancer types in future years.

The initiative, which brings together researchers in a variety of disciplines, is an attempt to convert new scientific discoveries into life-saving advances. M.D. Anderson thus far has raised $290 million from philanthropy toward the project, which DePinho estimates will cost $3 billion to $4 billion over 10 years. Money from grants and the commercialization of M.D. Anderson discoveries is also funding the project.

In addition to other novel treatment strategies, all of the Moon Shots are using some kind of immunotherapy, the new frontier in cancer therapy. Jim Allison, M.D. Anderson’s chairman of immunology, identified the first of a network of brakes on the immune system and the discovery enlivened a field once thought to be a lost cause. Suddenly, a number of types of immunotherapy are showing promise.

M.D. Anderson’s Moon Shots announcement comes shortly after Vice President Joe Biden used the term to call for a federal program to cure cancer, saying he plans “to spend the next 15 months in this office pushing as hard as I can to accomplish this.” DePinho said he was pleased to hear Biden’s suggestion and has since been in touch with his staff to offer thoughts on M.D. Anderson’s experience.

The term Moon Shots is a nod to President John F. Kennedy’s famous speech at Rice University in 1962 in which he declared the United States would “go to the moon in this decade.” Six years later, upon signing the National Cancer Act, President Richard Nixon said “the time has come in America when the same kind of concentrated effort that split the atom and took man to the moon should be turned toward conquering this dread disease.”

But progress has come slowly and incrementally in the decades since, causing experts to warn against promises for cures and other rhetoric. Some observers criticized the launch of M.D. Anderson’s initiative as a public relations move for taking on a project that would be more effectively led by the National Cancer Act or the White House.

But Dr. Otis Brawley, chief medical officer for the American Cancer Society, Wednesday called M.D. Anderson’s initiative “a very good thing” and said he’s “thrilled they’re able to afford to grow it more.”

“That one of the nation’s largest cancer centers has found a way to fund large projects based on new knowledge and good science is very hopeful for cancer,” said Brawley, calling $290 million in philanthropic money a huge amount. “No other center is doing anything like this.”

Brawley said his only concern is that people understand the initiative is “a long-term, intensive effort that takes time to bear fruit.” He said people should expect advances in eight to 10 years, not two or three.

Brawley added that he thought M.D. Anderson’s project could be a pilot program for the federal Moon Shot Biden wants. He also said he’d like to see M.D. Anderson collaborate with other leading American cancer centers on the project.

The new targets were chosen during the summer of 2014 from 14 proposals, two of which were first submitted for the 2012 selections. They were subjected to a rigorous peer review by experts from other cancer centers and the pharmaceutical industry.

The targets include two of the most lethal types of the disease – pancreatic, diagnosed in nearly 50,000 people annually, and glioblastoma, diagnosed in about 15,000. Both kill 95 percent of patients within five years. Colorectal cancer, the second-leading cause of cancer deaths, can be treated effectively if caught early but in Stage 4 kills 88 percent of patients within five years.

Many of the projects involve risk-prediction efforts and tests to diagnose the cancers earlier.

The Moon Shots venture also is using a “big data” analytical platform. Under the platform, information loaded from more than 160,000 patients treated at M.D. Anderson since 2012 can be accessed by both clinical and basic science researchers to evaluate the effects of treatment and to generate new ideas for improving patient care.


This article was originally posted on October 29, 2015 on the Houston Chronicle website.