Earlier this year, I attended an unusual meeting in Washington, DC, convened by John Niederhuber, a nationally renowned surgeon, cancer researchers, and the Director of the National Cancer Institute. Dr. Niederhuber, acting on advice from Anna Barker, the NCI Deputy Director who heads the Institutes many new technology initiatives, was interested in finding out if the physical sciences – physics, engineering, mathematics, and particularly chemistry – could contribute to the ongoing War on Cancer.
After two-and-a-half days of discussion, the question was no longer one of “if,” but one of “why,” as in why has the cancer research enterprise waited this long to actively engage chemists and their physical sciences sisters and brothers.
Of course, chemists have long been involved in cancer research, but mainly in a service role synthesizing thousands upon thousands of organic and inorganic molecules for testing as anticancer agents. Then they’ve gotten involved again when it comes time to mass-produce the occassional compound that shows promise and enters human clinical trials.
What the NCI is proposing is a radical change in how chemists and other physical scientists participate in cancer research. Instead of serving the needs of cancer biologists, Drs. Niederhuber and Barker want chemists, physicists, and the like to become drivers of cancer research, to lend a new perspective – an out-of-the-box perspective – to cancer research. Let me put it bluntly – the NCI wants YOU.
Talking with Dr. Barker during the meeting, I was struck with her success in driving home this point to NCI’s leadership. Though an immunologist by training, she has long succeeded as both a scientist and an entrepreneur by looking at a problem and bringing to bear whatever tools and talents were needed to find a solution, and this is another example of an open-mindedness that, should it pervade more of biomedical research would bode well for the future of medicine.
These days, I hear biomedical scientists give lip service to multi-disciplinary science, but for the most part, those same scientists then go back to their academic silos and keep plugging away in their disciplines, attacking what are increasingly difficult research problems using the same approach that they’ve always followed. In the cancer world, this has led to slow, incremental improvements in diagnostics and therapeutics, but face it, that pace isn’t good enough anymore.
Cancer is largely a disease of older age, and the population of the developed world is aging. Without a radical improvement in the way we diagnose and treat cancer, this collection of diseases will eclipse heart disease as the leading killer, with huge economic costs.
The National Cancer Institute knows this, and that realization is driving world’s largest funder of cancer research to seek revolutionary, not evolutionary, advances. It is that sense of urgency that prompted the NCI to lead the way in funding a huge initiative in biomedical nanotechnology, an effort that has already begun drawing chemists into the cancer research fold.
Kudos to the NCI for doing more than just talking about multidisciplinary research. The NCI is calling – will the chemistry community answer that call?
This article was written by Joe Alper, a freelance science writer and technology analyst in Louisville, CO, who writes frequently for the ACS journal Analytical Chemistry.