NCAB Discusses Future of Cancer Technology at NCI
"There is an extraordinary evolution going on in biomedical technology," said Dr. Eric Lander, co-chair with Dr. Leland Hartwell of the National Cancer Advisory Board (NCAB) ad hoc Subcommittee on Biomedical Technology Working Group, as he began his presentation at the Board's meeting on September 14. Dr. Lander discussed the Working Group's 2004 agenda, which focused on specific ways to take advantage of the potential power of technology through projects, initiatives, and structures that would have an effect all across cancer.
The NCAB Biomedical Technology Subcommittee established the Working Group to advise the Board, National Cancer Institute (NCI) Director Dr. Andrew C. von Eschenbach, and senior leadership on the development and application of biomedical technologies to cancer. Before this meeting, the Working Group enlisted the help of outside experts and developed subgroups to examine specific aspects and themes related to cancer and advancing technologies.
Reminding the Board that these are tentative recommendations and that several issues remain to be discussed by Working Group members, Dr. Lander noted that a number of themes identified by the subgroups overlapped, particularly in comprehensive characterization of the genomic basis of cancer and in the molecular detection of cancer.
Regarding the genomic basis of cancer, Dr. Lander noted that there is "always a new oncogene lurking out there, waiting to be discovered." But, because the number of different types of cancer is limited, for each type researchers can determine which genes are mutated in at least 5 percent of those cancers.
"Drug companies and academic researchers are increasingly coming up with strategies for translating a significant fraction…of important targets into therapeutics, and a larger fraction into important diagnostics," Dr. Lander said. He suggested that a cancer-focused program similar to the Human Genome Project could dramatically accelerate this process. Dr. Lander noted that this effort will require coordination of many different groups.
Regarding the molecular detection of cancer, he highlighted proteomics, saying that the "technology remains slow and expensive." He suggested that NCI might push forward proteomics by focusing its application, and also said that the "push" from technology developers needs to be supported by a "pull" from the cancer community, such as mandatory use of new technology in collaborative settings.
Dr. Lander ended by saying that a report on the Working Group's findings will most likely be ready at the December 2004 NCAB meeting.
Board members responded enthusiastically to the presentation. "This is one of the most exciting groups and processes in terms of their vision and thinking about the future and about how we can have a dramatic impact on this disease," said Dr. John Niederhuber, NCAB chair.
There were also questions. "I'd like to speak up to strongly endorse what Dr. Lander is saying here," said new NCAB member David H. Koch, "but, I worry that a big organization like the National Cancer Institute has a lot of inertia and can't change very quickly to support breakthroughs… In short, How do we make the NCI elephant dance like a ballerina?"
Dr. Lander answered, "In many ways, I would suggest that in completely restructuring an elephant, it might be best to focus on a part of it first. What we will attempt to do in the report is to lay out the structures that we believe are necessary to get these jobs done."