National Cancer Moonshot: From Photonics Research and Technology Development

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In his final State of the Union address last January, President Barack Obama forged a new way forward for the fight against cancer. Over the last several decades, the “war on cancer” has celebrated a limited number of significant but narrow victories despite medical advances. The early detection of the most lethal cancers, including brain, lung, ovarian and pancreatic, remains elusive, and current treatment protocols for later-stage disease are ineffective for many cancer patients.

Tom BaerThe president’s National Cancer Moonshot aims to harness the spirit of American innovation to identify new ways to prevent, diagnose and treat cancer, and bring about a decade’s worth of advances in just five years. Led by Vice President Joe Biden, someone who personally understands the toll of this terrible disease, the initiative uses a “whole-of-government” approach combined with public-private partnerships to marshal resources from across the federal government as well as private industry and other stakeholders to address this ambitious goal.

The National Cancer Moonshot is a particularly relevant call to action for the optics and photonics community. Advanced optics and photonics research and technology underpin many large-scale technological challenges facing health care, from the early detection of cancer to mapping neurons in the brain. To overcome these challenges, our industry needs to be aware of the many opportunities to collaborate with the federal government, and must identify and strive for joint technology goals that ensure development of critical robust technologies, and which may lead to significant commercial opportunities.

Through the National Photonics Initiative (NPI) Cancer Moonshot Task Force, thought leaders from leading academic institutions, patient organizations, hospitals and the medical device industry have joined forces to produce a white paper and cancer technology road map for the federal government. The road map recommends the expansion of funding for clinical studies over the next five years employing existing noninvasive, and minimally invasive, imaging technologies and companion molecular tests for early detection of cancer; coordinated public and private investments to expand funding for the development of new noninvasive quantitative imaging approaches for early detection and guided treatment of cancer where these technologies are needed; and resources to develop a network for an information technology (IT) medical infrastructure available to U.S. health-care providers and consumers.

Partnering with the Lung Cancer Alliance, Prevent Cancer Foundation, Siemens, the Advanced Medical Technology Association (AdvaMed), the Medical Imaging and Technology Alliance (MITA), The Optical Society (OSA), the International Society for Optics and Photonics (SPIE), MD Anderson Cancer Center, Stanford University, Rush University Medical Center, University of Texas Health Science Center, University of Chicago and Rice University, the NPI Cancer Moonshot Task Force will leverage their total annual investment in research in cancer diagnosis and therapeutics technologies. That total exceeds $3 billion and will provide for the maximization of both existing and new early detection and treatment technologies while also exploring cost-effective approaches amenable to community-based practices.

By effectively utilizing existing technologies — combining quantitative imaging diagnostic solutions with biomolecular analysis and computational strategies for machine learning — our country can make significant strides within the next five years. Focused investments can stimulate development of new low-cost, precise, early-detection technologies and treatment protocols. Public-private partnerships and coordinated investments will drive innovation in areas such as imaging instrumentation, companion biomolecular and image-based predictive assays, and bioinformatics infrastructure that will improve patient outcomes in each stage of cancer diagnosis and treatment, while significantly reducing medical costs. The Task Force recommendations — advances in imaging technologies, molecular probes, new companion biomolecular assays and a national IT infrastructure — are essential for ushering in these next-generation tools that will benefit patients across the spectrum of cancer management.

Initiatives such as the National Cancer Moonshot present an opportunity to bring together academia, industry and government to help overcome a historical obstacle to the success of the optics and photonics fields in biomedicine: the gap between basic research and the deployment in medical practice of the remarkable new technologies developed by our field over the last few decades.

Translating scientific advances into technological solutions that improve lives is not an easy process, and bringing about a decade’s worth of advances in just five years will be a major challenge. However, with continued leadership by Vice President Biden and the White House, I am convinced that industry, academia, patient advocacy organizations and government agencies working together can greatly accelerate progress in understanding the causes of cancer and significantly improve patient survival within the next half decade.

Meet the author

Tom Baer is the chairman of the National Photonics Initiative (NPI) Cancer Moonshot Task Force and serves as executive director of the Stanford Photonics Research Center (SPRC) at Stanford University in California; email: [email protected].

Published: August 2016
BiophotonicsBioOpinionNational Photonics InitiativeNPICancer Moonshot Task Forcecancer

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