Inflection Points

Can America come together to cure cancer?

January 14, 2016

JUDY WOODRUFF: But, first, what the White House is calling the moon shot to cure cancer. One unexpected announcement in President Obama’s State of the Union address came when he tapped Vice President Joe Biden to lead an effort to boost and streamline cancer research across the country.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Tonight, I’m announcing a new national effort to get it done. And because he’s gone to the mat for all of us on so many issues over the past 40 years, I’m putting Joe in charge of mission control.
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.
What do you say, Joe?

JUDY WOODRUFF: For a look at what an initiative might look like, and who would be involved, and how it might go forward, we turn to three people with long ties to cancer research.
Dr. Otis Brawley is chief medical officer at the American Cancer Society. Dr. Francis Collins is the director of the National Institutes of Health. And Katie Couric, in addition to being the well-known journalist and author, she is also one of the co-founders of Stand Up to Cancer. It’s a charitable group that supports collaborative research.
And we welcome all three of you to the program.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Dr. Brawley, let me start with you.
Is it realistic for the president to say, let’s cure cancer once and for all?

DR. OTIS BRAWLEY  Well, I think the cure analogy is fine.
What’s really going to happen is some cancers, if we intensify our efforts, will be cured. Many cancers are going to be stalled out to where they become very chronic diseases, like diabetes. But the end result is, people are going to be better for it.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Dr. Collins, do you agree? I mean, we know there are, what, over 100 — maybe hundreds of types of cancer? What are people to think about this?

DR. FRANCIS COLLINS, National Institutes of Health: Well, I hope they will be inspired and excited about this.
Yes, there are hundreds of types of cancer, but we are at an inflection point in terms of things we are learning about what causes this disease, where good cells go bad, and what could we do about it? And by bring together immunotherapy, the new way of activating the immune system to tackle cancel, genomics, and making sure that everybody is sharing the data they’re developing in those kinds of studies, the vice president, a man of great passion and principle, is determined that this is not going to be a tweak on the system.
This is going to be a major acceleration of the effort to discover how to treat and cure, in many instances, cancer. And goodness knows, we can all get excited about that outcome.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And, Katie Couric, as somebody who has been on the advocacy side of this for years, having lost your first husband and your sister to cancer, how do you see the challenge?

KATIE COURIC, Stand Up To Cancer: Well, I think it’s so exciting, Judy, when I heard this announcement at the State of the Union. And it’s — I think we are, as Dr. Collins said, at a really inflection point, and things are happening so much when it comes to immunotherapy, as he said, genomics, the basic science.
And, you know, as somebody who has lost people near and dear to my heart, I — when Vice President Biden lost Beau, I literally felt his pain and frustration. And that’s the way I felt when Jay and Emily died. Why couldn’t there be better treatments?
I remember, Judy, the first-line treatment for metastatic colon cancer for Jay in 1999 — 1997, rather, had been around since the 1950s. And it just made me furious. And that was really the impetus for Stand Up to Cancer.
We said, you know, these researchers, these scientists, they have to collaborate, instead of compete. And we started it in 2008, and now, eight years later, we have — we have 1,000 scientists. We have 130 researcher institutions involved. They’re working on 18 different dream teams, where they’re collaborating on things like pancreatic cancer, lung cancer with the American Cancer Society, childhood cancers.


KATIE COURIC: And it’s — so, and, already, two FDA-approved treatments have stemmed from that kind of research for pancreatic cancer and lung cancer. So, I think collaboration really is the key.

JUDY WOODRUFF: What about that, Dr. Brawley? What would constitute a breakthrough here?

DR. OTIS BRAWLEY: Well, I agree that we need sustained funding and sustained support for the scientists, especially the folks at the National Cancer Institute, who have been wonderful at this.
I do believe that we are at an inflection point. We have learned a lot about what goes on in the cancer cell. A lot of targets that are drugGable are being developed. We actually need some command-and-control of the oncology research network in order to advance it further and faster.  


Sal Khan of the Kahn Academy on Inflection points:


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