Moon Shots

by thoughtsatlarge

ImageIn the third season of The West Wing, at the end of the episode titled “100,000 Airplanes,” Deputy White House Communications Director Sam Seaborne deletes from his computer the following passage from a final draft of President Bartlet’s upcoming State of the Union speech:

“Over the past half-century, we’ve split the atom, we’ve spliced the gene, and we’ve roamed Tranquility Base. We’ve reached for the stars, and never have we been closer to having them in our grasp. New science, new technology is making the difference between life and death, and so we need a national commitment equal to this unparalleled moment of possibility. And so, I announce to you tonight, that I will bring the full resources of the federal government and the full reach of my office to this fundamental goal: we will cure cancer by the end of this decade.”

Politics prevented the fictional president from making this statement.  I would submit that politics has prevented every actual president from making this proclamation as well.  However, it is the private sector (coupled with federal initiatives) that rises to meet this monumental challenge.  Through the tireless efforts of countless researchers over the past few decades, major advances have occurred in the fight against cancer.  This past Sunday (September 23, 2012) Nature published an article identifying four definitive types of breast cancer following a comprehensive genetic study.  This study is part of The Cancer Genome Atlas (TCGA).  Funded as a pilot program in 2006 with a $50 million investment from both the National Cancer Institute (NCI) and National Human Genome Research Institute (NHGRI), the TCGA pilot project concluded that a compendium of DNA “errors” could be categorized for specific cancer types. The National Institutes of Health has committed $175 million from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) to continue the program.

Four days earlier, on Wednesday, September 19th, the University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center launched its Moon Shots program designed to “accelerate the pace of converting scientific discoveries into clinical advances that reduce cancer deaths.”  The cost of the Moon Shots Program will be an estimated $3 billion in the first 10 years. It will be funded through M.D. Anderson institutional earnings, philanthropic donations, research grants and earnings gained from new discoveries.

Cancer knows no boundaries, takes no prisoners and ensures its own destruction by ultimately killing its host.  War against such an enemy can likewise know no mercy.  ImagePresident Kennedy, in his famous speech at Rice University on September 12, 1962 wherein he committed the United States to reach the moon by the end of the decade said, “William Bradford, speaking in 1630 of the founding of the Plymouth Bay Colony, said that all great and honorable actions are accompanied with great difficulties, and both must be enterprised and overcome with answerable courage.”  Let neither great difficulties, nor politics dissuade us from reaching this “moon.”