Innovations In Science: Pursuing Another Giant Leap For Mankind

According to the American Cancer Society, in 2016 there will be an estimated 1.6 million new cancer cases diagnosed and over half a million cancer deaths in the US. While much has been achieved in the detection and treatment of cancer, it’s clear that this disease in all its various forms, will be with us for a long time.

Regardless of who you are, where you live, or your personal circumstances, chances are you’ve been touched by cancer in some form. And you don’t have to have cancer to be affected by it. All illness is the story of one. Speak to anyone who has had to care for a loved one with cancer and you’ll quickly know the emotional, physical and financial toll it takes on everyone involved.

Last year, Vice President Joe Biden lost his son Beau Biden, to brain cancer. This bright, enigmatic young man who was the Attorney General for Delaware was only 46. His death was tragic, but if there is a silver lining in all of this, it’s the announcement by President Obama during the State of the Union address on January 12, 2016, establishing the National Cancer Moonshot Initiative to accelerate cancer research, led by Vice President Biden. Its goal is to make more therapies available to more patients, improve early detection methods and, ultimately, prevent this insidious disease.

Make no mistake, finding a cure for all the types of cancer we currently know about will be hard, but sending someone to the moon was a pretty ambitious goal as well. When John F. Kennedy announced on May 25, 1961 America’s goal to put a man on the moon by the end of the decade, there was no reason to think it couldn’t be done. Billions of dollars were invested, and there were plenty of failures along the way, but for anyone who remembers when Neil Armstrong stepped out onto the dusty surface of the moon and said his immortal words “that’s one small step…” it was a seminal moment.

Cancer is a global health issue and, as people live longer, one that will continue to grow. From a research standpoint it’s also exceptionally cross-discipline covering a broad scope of medical specialties such as neurology, gynecology, pulmonology, gastroenterology and hematology, as well as related factors such as the environment, pharmacology, public health awareness and nutrition. Curing cancer will therefore require intensive collaboration from the scientific community at large.

Economics is another major factor in treating cancer. Most patients will need long-term, on-going care which has enormous implications for family finances as well as the social and psychological impact for the care-givers. Developing treatments, finding cures and, ultimately, preventing cancer, will require the commitment of tremendous resources from government as well as the private and academic sectors. America’s moonshot was largely financed by the U.S. government. But in today’s economic climate and greater scrutiny of public spending, economic support from the private and philanthropic sectors will be a factor in supporting more cancer research.

Technology, especially the internet, social scientific networks such as Social Science Research Network, an online open-access repository, as well as collaboration platforms such as Mendeley, will allow research teams worldwide easier ways to share knowledge and leverage expertise regardless of location and affiliation.

There’s certainly no shortage of work already accomplished. According to ScienceDirect more than 1.5 million research papers about cancer have been published in the past five years; a huge amount of data. Scopus data reveals Europe leads in overall cancer research output, but there have been significant increases from institutions in North America and Asia Pacific during the same period, most notably by China and the United States.

Thanks to the dedication of millions of anonymous researchers tirelessly engaged in cancer research, there have been tremendous strides made in the past decade. The dreaded “c-word” is no longer an automatic death sentence. People are now better educated about high risk behaviors that should be avoided such as smoking and exposure to certain chemicals, as well as the importance of annual physical tests. Sophisticated diagnostic imaging such as ultrasound, MRI and CT scans as well as blood tests can help with early detection of small growths and masses which means early intervention and better chances for a complete cure.

Cancer is a tremendously complex disease and new strains are discovered every day. We may never eradicate it completely, but if it is possible to send a man to the moon and bring him safely home in less than a decade, we stand a pretty good chance of securing a “giant leap for mankind” in reducing cancer’s impact on our society.