In the remarkable first fortnight of 2016 we learned of the death by cancer of David Bowie, oddly coincidental with the release of his final, astonishingly precient music videos “Backstar” and “Lazarus“. Two days later, during his final State of the Union Address, President Obama made the historical analogy of the Kennedy administration’s space program: “Sixty years ago, when the Russians beat us into space, we didn’t deny Sputnik was up there. We didn’t argue about the science, or shrink our research and development budget. We built a space program almost overnight. And 12 years later, we were walking on the moon. ” He then announced the Cancer Moonshot, to be championed by Joe Biden, who recently lost his son to cancer. The President said, to bipartisan applause, “For the loved ones we’ve all lost, for the families that we can still save, let’s make America the country that cures cancer once and for all.”
This was the same week as the annual J.P. Morgan Healthcare Conference, at which Patrick Soon-Shiung MD, a pharmaceutical billionaire visionary said “Our knowledge in the science of genomics, proteomics, immunology and immunotherapy has advanced and converged at an unprecedented speed, making now the time for the rapid deployment and orchestration of immunotherapy for the benefit of millions of cancer patients. The Cancer MoonShot 2020 Program, the National Immunotherapy Coalition and the QUILT Program are designed to do just that, bring together a diverse group of visionary leaders and stakeholders to pool resources and bring to patients a dramatic improvement in cancer care.”
Unlike the Apollo Moonshot program, this one is not primarily being driven by federal funding. At best, the role of the federal government will be to facilitate cross- industry collaboration, and in my wildest dreams, have the FDA playing a helpful role in accelerating access by patients to the most advanced diagnostics and therapies. The use of the term “cures” has made many in the industry nervous. Cancer, after all, is now understood to be a broad category of disease with hundreds of different disease profiles. Landing a space ship on the moon pales in comparison with the sheer number of human cells (30-100 trillion in each of us) each with a full set of our genomic kit.
Yet it is a tribute to the imagination and creativity of our species that we can set this goal. I cannot think of a better use of our resources than to find cures for a disease that kills nearly 8 million people a year worldwide. Many now suspect that among the causes of cancer is the deterioration of the molecular mechanisms for repairing our DNA. One possible outcome of the efforts to find cures for cancer may be to rejuvenate our DNA maintenance capabilities.
David Bowie was a master of reinvention, as anyone who looks at the diverse personas that he created and moved beyond over the course of his career. I like him best at the end, and regret we will not be able to see where he would have gone next.
In my lifetime there have been many great musicians who have succumbed to cancer. I created this Spotify playlist to celebrate the creative contributions of some of those whose lives were cut short by cancer and whose art touched my life. It was with sadness and respect that I added David Bowie to this list. It underscores the urgency to take action.