The MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston announced Friday it's mounting a bold "moon shot" to dramatically reduce deaths from eight types of cancer within the next decade.
The new effort was likened to the space program of the 1960s, inspired by John F. Kennedy's famous speech, 50 years ago this month at Rice University in Houston, in which he said America should go to the moon and do other things, "not because they are easy but because they are hard."
"When Kennedy stood up there on September 1962, he didn't say that we're going to study how to get to the moon," said Dr. Ronald DePinho, president of MD Anderson. "He said we are going to the moon. Then the nation rallied to make sure we went to the moon."
The program, set to launch February 2013, will aim to accelerate the time cancer prevention and treatment efforts proven by research are used clinically. It is considered by the hospital as its largest initiative to eliminate some forms of cancer.
"They're bringing the lab to the clinic," said Dr. Roy Herbst, director of the thoracic oncology research program at the Yale Comprehensive Cancer Center. "You would say that they're doing this anyhow, but they're refocusing."
Herbst was a former faculty member at MD Anderson but is not affiliated with its moon shot program.
The program comes after a year-long review process by a panel of medical experts from across the nation. They argued that as a result of work done over the last decade, researchers are close to finding cures for some types of cancer.
"In this moon shot effort, we're fashioning our programs in a way that enables us to ensure these discoveries make an impact," said DePinho.
The cancers that the program intends to target include acute myeloid leukemia and myelodysplastic syndrome, a disease that has made headlines after it was diagnosed in "Good Morning America" co-anchor Robin Roberts.
Other cancers in the program include chronic lymphocytic leukemia, melanoma, lung cancer, prostate cancer, and triple-negative breast and ovarian cancers.
"All of these cancers we picked were picked in part because the state of knowledge in the field today is such that if the knowledge was acted upon with the technologies we have today, there would be a subsequent effect in the level of mortality," said DePinho.
The goal is to take action that will directly benefit the patient, he said.
However, DePinho acknowledged that in some cancer cases, action can do more harm than good.
Experts know that not all cancers warrant treatment. For example, screenings that have picked up some early-stage prostate cancers and early-stage lung cancers have led to costly testing and unnecessary treatment with long-lasting side effects. Doctors have learned that sometimes no action is the best action.
"Having discovered a cancer, you have to know whether you should treat or not treat," said DePinho, who added that the program will not only address prevention, detection, and treatment efforts, but will also stratify patients based on whether they need to be treated.
Genevieve Mosley, 82, of Long Island, New York, is one of many patients who may benefit from the new initiative. Mosley, who was diagnosed with Acute Myeloid Leukemia in December 2011, went to MD Anderson for treatment.
"[The cancer is] aggressive and deadly," said Mosley, whose cancer has been reduced by more than half since the start of treatment. "I am accepting new treatment and taking to it well."
Under the moon shot program, the center would ideally introduce advances in the research to Mosely's care to better treat her disease.
"I think it's wonderful, especially if it can save younger people," said Mosely.
The $3 billion program will fund six research teams whose main goal is to expeditiously translate research to successful clinical interventions. The money is expected to come from hospital earnings, research grants and philanthropic donors.
"It's ambitious, but it's all positive," said Herbst, though he added that federal budget cuts in cancer research have affected many research initiatives. "It's going to require commitment and coordination, and the biggest center should take the lead on this."
Many experts said the initiative would be a change for medical research, which is infamously regarded as slow-going and far removed from clinical practice.
"The process of bringing this amount of horsepower together in such a focused manner is not normally seen in academic medicine and is valuable in and of itself," Frank McCormick, director of the University of California, San Francisco Cancer Center and president of the American Association for Cancer Research said in a public statement. McCormick led the review panel that led to the program.
Long-term cancer survival rates have risen dramatically over the last decade. By the end of 2012, 11.3 million Americans are expected to be identified as cancer survivors, according to the American Cancer Society.
The moon shot program is intended to offer treatments that will help patients, "minimize side effects that will span way beyond the patient's life after treatment is over," said DePinho.
"This is our moment and the time to act is now," said DePinho. "We're going to go through a major mind set change to ensure discoveries reach patients in a systematic way."