27 September 2012

On "Moon Shots"

UT MD Anderson Cancer Center Launches Unprecedented Moon Shots Program

Houston — The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center announces the launch of the Moon Shots Program, an unprecedented effort to dramatically accelerate the pace of converting scientific discoveries into clinical advances that reduce cancer deaths.
A "moon shot"? Seriously? We already tried that. Literally.

The National Cancer Institute was specifically established to be a "moon shot" against cancer. The Laskerites explicitly used that language when they were lobbying for it.

And where did it get us? To the moon? You tell me: when it comes to oncology, are we in lunar orbit? Or are we still limping along in the equivalent of a DC-10 with our fingers crossed, hoping that the number of landings equals the number of take-offs?

This isn't a criticism of oncological researchers or clinicians. Curing cancer is hard. Harder than getting to the moon. That's part of why "But if we can put a man on the Moon then we can [blah blah blah]" is so specious. You know what you need to put a man on the moon? Thrust. Lots of it, but that's it. That's all. We knew the Science behind it for generations. We just needed to figure out the Engineering. That's hard, but that's completely different from figuring out how to cure cancer.

You know how Kennedy said "We choose to go to the Moon..."? It was a choice. It was one that cost us a noticeable piece of GDP, a more noticeable chunk of the Federal budget, and a vast chunk of our physical science and engineering effort for a decade, but it was a great human achievement and it embarrassed Ivan, so yay! But it was still literally a choice. We could try to go to the Moon, or we could go do some other stuff, but they were both options.

Meanwhile, we've been waging our "War on Cancer" since 1971. It's not like we can just decide "hey, you know what, let's choose to cure cancer now." That's what we've been doing. It hasn't been going that great. (Compared to the Apollo Program, I think I can safely say it's been a failure.) And the advances that have been made have mostly come from outside the NCI & "War on Cancer" establishment anyway.

By all means, let's keep trying. Let's try even harder! That's great! But let's not pretend this is in any way like going to the Moon, other than that both endeavors involve plenty of Science and even more money.

I wish MD Anderson well. Really, I do. I have a very personal stake in someone figuring out some good cancer treatments soonish. But can we please cool it with the Apollo Program rhetoric? Especially if we've already tried a "moon shot" in that area and it failed outright? Please?

PS Read Siddhartha Mukherjee's The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer. It was awesome.

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