M.D. Anderson aims to harness data to fight cancer

One of the world's leading cancer centers says time is right for 'bold action'
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The University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center is taking aim at eight types of cancer in an ambitious $3 billion project taking inspiration from President John Kennedy's determination to reach the moon.

The announcement coincides with the 50th anniversary of Kennedy's 1962 speech delivered at Rice University, only a mile away.

Called the Moon Shots program, it will focus the latest research and technology toward fighting cancers of the lung, prostate, breast and ovaries, melanoma and three types of leukemia. One of the world's leading cancer centers, M.D. Anderson treated about 117,000 patients last year.

"Humanity urgently needs bold action to defeat cancer. I believe that we have many of the tools we need to pick the fight of the 21st century. Let's focus our energies on approaching cancer comprehensively and systematically, with the precision of an engineer, always asking ... 'What can we do to directly impact patients?'" Ronald A. DePinho, M.D., MD Anderson's president, said in the announcement.

In an interview with The Wall Street Journal, DePinho noted a rare "confluence of enabling technologies" making the time right for such bold action. They include the declining cost of gene sequencing, improved computational power to analyze massive amounts of data and the ability to manipulate genes in the laboratory to better understand their function.

The program also calls for adaptive learning, bringing real-time data into the genomic research, and big data techniques to store, access and analyze data in genomic sequencing. It also will involve infrastructure to effectively bank tumor specimens, as well as less technical measures such as community-based efforts to increase screening and early detection.  

The effort, to begin in February, is estimated to cost $3 billion over 10 years, funded through institutional earnings, philanthropy, competitive research grants and commercialization of new discoveries. It's not expected to disrupt research already in progress. M.D. Anderson has roughly 11,000 patients enrolled in about 1,000 ongoing clinical trials, the WSJ reported.

Back in June, the Pentagon awarded $17.8 million in grants in its bid to compress by 10-fold the time and cost to create new medicines and materials.

And the National Human Genome Research Institute, part of the National Institutes of Health, recently announced $18.7 million in grants for research projects to improve human gene sequencing data to better understand and treat disease.

California researchers, meanwhile, have taken advantage of advances in computing by creating what they describe as the world's largest database of cancer genomes based on the vast amounts of sequencing data pouring out of the U.S. National Cancer Institute's genome projects.

To learn more:
- read the announcement
- visit the Moon Shots website
- read the WSJ article

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