ASPEN, Colo. — Softening the current optimism about curing cancer, a leading figure in genetics and disease research says it’ll take decades to transform the majority of cancers into chronic diseases instead of lethal ones.
Eric Lander, who co-chairs the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology, hopes the administration’s recently announced cancer “moonshot,” led by Vice President Joe Biden, will help shorten this time frame.
“It’s not going to be all done in 10 years, but if we get it done in 40 years, I’m not going to be embarrassed,” Lander said during a session at Spotlight Health, part of the Aspen Ideas Festival in Colorado.
He’s confident cancer will eventually be tamed because, unlike infectious diseases which can become resistant to treatment as they pass from person to person, “every cancer starts naïve” and thus potentially easier to attack.
One structural barrier to making rapid headway against cancer is the difficulty that health systems have sharing data about their cancer patients with researchers — not to mention with the patients themselves.
“We should force the liberation of people’s own medical records,” Lander told the crowd of about 100.
During a question-and-answer period, FDA commissioner Robert Califf, who was in the audience, said he is doubtful that hospitals will be willing to share patient data because they see it as a possible revenue source.
“Almost every health system regards possessing data as a key financial asset,” he said, but suggested that patients may eventually force hospitals to share data.
“Data sharing alone is not going to cure cancer, but cancer’s not going to get cured without data sharing,” said Lander, who is also founding director of the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard.
The Broad is leading a national effort with the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute to encourage patients with metastatic breast cancer to share their medical information. The Metastatic Breast Cancer Project has collected data from more than 2,000 patients over the last seven months merely by word of mouth and social networks. The volunteers have given researchers access to their medical records and tumor samples, and sent in saliva samples to provide DNA.
In an interview after the session, Lander said he is still raising funds to pay for sequencing the volunteers’ DNA and to expand the project to other types of cancer.
His current interest in patient data is a natural evolution of the field of genetics, Lander explained. First came his involvement in the Human Genome Project, which provided the blueprint for understanding human genes. Then the scientific focus shifted toward identifying genes associated with specific disorders.
Now, he said, science needs to “turn the health care system into a learning system,” capturing and exploring the data offered by patients’ experiences and biology. A deeper understanding of the biology and natural history of diseases such as cancer will lead to more effective treatments.
As a scientist whose has devoted his career to understanding the human genome, has Lander delved into his own genome? “I haven’t had my genome sequenced because I haven’t had a need for it,” Lander said. “If, God forbid, I had cancer, I’d want it sequenced immediately.”