for innovation in cancer research was urgent. Unlike other major disease killers, cancer continues to take nearly the same toll it did in 1950. While the death rate per 100,000 Americans from heart disease dropped from 586 in 1950 to 203 in 2008; from cerebrovascular disease from 180 to 44; and from pneumonia/influenza from 48 to 18, the death rate from cancers held steady at about half a million. Americans now spend $124 billion for cancer healthcare costs.
And cancer is not just a burden for the United States, he said. A study by the WHO indicates that by 2020 cancer would claim about 10 million lives per year, making it or one of top 10 killers. This percentage has increased since 2002, “so we truly need to think differently, which is what we are charged to do in my organization.”
A second reason Dr. Lee had been invited, he said, was that his own center was specifically charged to find innovative approaches to the cancer battle. In addition, he said, it was “possibly the most exciting time to be doing biomedical research.” In 2001, the full sequencing of the human genome was completed, and last year investigators in the United States, in collaboration with partners elsewhere, launched the 1000 Genomes Project to examine gene-by-gene population differences. These and other programs have generated unprecedented amounts of information that is being put into public domain.
Jump-starting the Cancer Research Process
Is this increase of knowledge benefiting the patient, he asked? Maybe, but not fast enough. “So we asked ourselves about 10 years ago whether we could jump-start this process and make it more efficient, to go from ‘turning the crank’ to something different. We reached out to the research community, and used the responses to identify four key needs” that might enable researchers to understand cancer. The first was better standards and protocols, so researchers can speak the same language. The second was real-time public release of data to ensure prompt availability. Third was to structure research teams with multiple disciplines. And fourth was to create an environment conducive to innovation. “If we could do all this,” he said, “we would have the potential to transform cancer, drug discovery, and diagnostics.”
These were daunting needs, Dr. Lee said, but his advisory group reported them directly to the president. The Center for Strategic Scientific Initiatives used exactly those needs to structure its mission—to build “…trans-disciplinary approaches, infrastructures, and standards to accelerate the creation and broad deployment of data, knowledge, and tools to empower the entire cancer research continuum…for patient benefit…”
His group then set out to answer their “big question”: why does cancer research not move faster? A central problem, he said, was that while everyone understood that cancer is caused by an alteration of genes, many had different perspectives on which changes were truly important. “So we said, let’s do a systemic identification of all the cancer genomic changes, repeat if for all