January 2017 Edition Vol.11, Issue 1

2017 Forecast Series—Laurie Glimcher, MD, President and CEO, Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, Discusses the Cancer “Moonshot” Initiative

Dr. Laurie Glimcher assumed the helm of Dana-Farber Cancer Institute (DFCI) on October 1, 2016, and as a Blue Ribbon Panel member of Vice President Joe Biden’s National Cancer Moonshot Initiative, serves as an advisor on the program’s scientific direction and goals at the National Cancer Institute (NCI).  OBR asked for her thoughts on the “Moonshot” initiative, the future of cancer research, and on her plans for DFCI.


OBR: The 21st Century Cures Act invests $1.8 billion for a cancer research “moonshot” and is strongly supported by VP Joe Biden, whose son Beau, died of brain cancer in 2015.  What’s the next step?

LG: I was at the White House last month and watched President Obama sign the bill. It was inspiring to be there and to share in the excitement of such a broad group of people dedicated to continuing to work to make progress against cancer.

The funding for the Cancer Moonshot was especially meaningful for those of us who care deeply about cancer. It is a revolutionary time in cancer research, and while the funding wasn’t as much as we hoped it would be, it’s important support for our work. The next step is to work out the funding mechanism, which is underway at the NIH and the NCI.

OBR: We’ve seen remarkable progress in defeating cancer, primarily due to advances in precision medicine and immunotherapy.  Are we getting close to a “cure,” particularly for some cancer types, or is there still a long way to go?  If so, how do we get there?  

LG: We’ve come such a long way in cancer treatment and research, including making progress in precision medicine and immunotherapy, yet we still have a way to go — we’re not curing most cancers. We are continuing the relentless pursuit for better treatments and cures and will continue to need resources to do it.

Today, we are using less invasive treatments, i.e., we now have oral chemotherapies for some cancers; we can tell faster than ever whether a treatment is working or not and nimbly shift to another therapy, if necessary; we’re beginning to be able to identify mutations in cancers through a blood test, or liquid biopsy; we’re getting better at reducing some of the side effects associated with cancer therapy — reducing the incidence and severity of graft-versus-host disease, for example, in allogeneic transplants; we’re discovering ways to reverse drug resistance, which is a large impediment to successful treatment in some cancers; we’re getting better at determining which patients are likely, and not likely, to benefit from certain treatments, so therapies can be given to people who have the best chance of being helped by them (and sparing others from the rigors of certain chemotherapies); we’re turning once-lethal cancers into chronic diseases; and we’re gaining the ability to track the evolution of tumors as they acquire new mutations, which may make them vulnerable to different targeted therapies.

OBR: As the president and CEO of one of the country’s premier cancer research institutes, what are some of your goals for Dana-Farber, both in the coming year and perhaps longer-term, to keep it in the forefront of cancer research and discovery?

LG: One of my goals is to expand our work in immunotherapy — one of the most promising areas of research. We want to make top quality care available to more people, and we must harness the potential of precision medicine, both by enhancing our understanding of the biology of cancer, and by expanding our data infrastructure. That means we must continue to invest in basic science, even as we work to develop new therapies.

OBR: In your opinion, what’s the single best thing that could happen to advance the cancer field and benefit patients in 2017?

LG: One of the biggest problems we are seeing is resistance to anti-cancer drugs, so a key focus is to find the keys to blocking cancer’s escape routes, which inevitably develop over time. Identifying drug combinations that hit several escape targets is a major research focus, yet we often find those combinations cause more side effects. One of the big hopes for immunotherapy is that the immune system can adapt to changes in cancer cells, which would significantly advance cancer treatment.

From a general public perspective, the single best thing that could happen would be for people to understand the enormous gains we’re making against cancer — to realize that the investment in research is paying off in longer survival and better quality of life for tens of thousands of patients — and help us with ongoing resources to continue our progress against the disease.

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