Phil Sharp looked impressed. The Nobel Prize-winning molecular biologist leaned forward and listened intently as one team of top scientists after another reported on their research in the battle against a disease that threatens us all. “We are in the heyday of our impact on cancer,” he said. And the scientists couldn’t agree more.
The meeting was a scientific summit of Stand Up To Cancer (SU2C), the initiative that eight other women and I started in 2008. The scientists who Phil was listening to are members of SU2C’s Dream Teams. When we came up with the idea for SU2C, we set out to change the paradigm of cancer research by enlisting the very best to get out of their silos and work together as collaborative teams.
In just eight years, SU2C has funded 19 Dream Teams with more than 1,100 researchers from over 130 institutions working together to find new and improved approaches to cancer.
More than 100 scientists participated in the summit, organized by the prestigious American Association for Cancer Research (AACR), SU2C’s scientific partner. The extraordinary brainpower made the room feel as if it was almost vibrating.
The meeting was a chance for the scientists to show each other the fruits of their labors. First, they spoke with each other — using charts and statistics and some very big words…Then, the Dream Team members spoke with me and my fellow co-founders in layperson’s terms about their progress. I was blown away by their enthusiasm, optimism, and dedication to this cause.
One of the things that really struck me at the summit was the number of people I met who were experts in areas that I don’t usually associate with cancer research. Who knew that physicists, mathematicians and even engineers would be involved? In an emerging discipline called “convergence,” very different but complementary fields come together to find innovative ways to treat the disease. Convergence is one of the biggest trends in cancer science now, and SU2C is a leader in supporting it.
I couldn’t help but think of what Vice President Joe Biden recently said: “Research and therapies are on the cusp of incredible breakthroughs. Just in the past four years, we’ve seen amazing advancements.”
I think we really are at a dawn of a new era. We’re so close to some really big breakthroughs, our scientists can taste it.
Here’s a snapshot of what I heard from SU2C’s Dream Teams:
· Immunotherapy rocks! One of the most exciting advances in cancer treatment is Immunotherapy — using the body’s own immune system to attack cancer cells. Melanoma and lung cancer are now being treated with immunotherapies. I was encouraged to hear that SU2C has invested over $75 million in this approach. And on a personal level, I was gratified to hear that immunotherapy is also being used to fight one of the deadliest forms of cancer — pancreatic cancer. That’s the one that took my sister Emily’s life.
· Men are from Mars. Women are from Venus. BUT the planets are aligning.
Ovarian cancer, a uniquely FEMALE form of cancer, and prostate cancer, a uniquely MALE form of cancer, are sometimes driven by the same genetic alterations. So researchers are studying the question of whether new drugs called PARP inhibitors that are used to treat ovarian cancer might also be used to treat prostate cancer in men who have certain genetic mutations. Men and women may come from different planets, but we might be able to use the same treatments for our very different cancers.
· The Big Data Boom. We’re living in a data-driven world. Marketers use data to know where and when to bombard you with ads for everything from diapers to ski jackets. Presidential candidates are using data to try to get a leg up on their competition in the upcoming election. And SU2C is also embracing big data to get a leg up on OUR opponent — cancer.
As doctors and scientists share more data from cancer patients, we will better understand how the disease develops and examine how it manifests itself in different patient populations. That will help scientists and drug manufacturers develop the most efficacious therapies. But that is easier said than done. There’s no single way to record and share this enormous amount of information.
SU2C helped fund one large-scale data-sharing project which is linked to a larger effort sponsored by AACR, called Project GENIE — Genomics, Evidence, Neoplasia, Information, Exchange.
· The early bird catches the cancer. As I have been saying since my first days as a cancer advocate, early detection is key. That’s one of the reasons I had a colonoscopy on national television. I wanted to demystify the procedure and encourage more people to get screened. I’m proud of the impact that moment has had. In fact, I still hear from people who thank me for saving their lives by encouraging them to get screened. I admit it — I never get tired of hearing those stories.
An SU2C Dream Team based in the Netherlands is working to improve early detection of colorectal cancer by identifying a broader array of cancer-specific biomarkers and developing tests for them in stool samples. These biomarkers can indicate the presence of cancer or precancerous growths. The fight against colorectal cancer, which my late husband Jay battled for nine months, remains incredibly important to me….so I was thrilled to learn more about this international collaboration.
· Even better than early detection is stopping cancer before it starts. A new Dream Team is trying to prevent ovarian cancer by developing reliable and accessible approaches to genetic screening and risk assessment and reduction. This would help identify women who are at a high risk of getting ovarian cancer and provide them with counseling about the potentially life-saving options that are available.
And yet, these types of innovations often go totally unnoticed. That’s where I feel it’s my job and the job of so many other cancer advocates to build a bridge between the researchers and the general public. It’s up to us to make sure that the patients in cities and towns of all sizes, all over the country, know about cutting-edge treatments like immunotherapy. What good is it for our doctors to make scientific breakthroughs if people struggling with cancer don’t know about them? It’s a classic “tree falling in a forest with no one there to hear it” conundrum.
SU2C scientists are some of the brightest minds in cancer research. They are also compassionate men and women, who never lose sight of why they stepped out of their scientific silos to join together in this fight. The “need for speed” in getting new treatments to the patients who so desperately need them is paramount.
And that was very evident at the summit. One of the doctors was near tears as he shared a photo of a pediatric cancer patient, a young girl, he had just lost. He is part of a Dream Team recently announced in Canada, leading a new attack on brain cancers. The team is poised to start clinical trials, seeking to extend patients’ lives and give new hope to children and their parents.
My experience at the summit gave me renewed hope for our fight to end cancer. To me, we are at a major inflection point in cancer research, and I wasn’t alone in my optimism. Our brilliant and passionate doctors are also energized. It’s incredibly moving to see all of this first-hand.
On behalf of everyone connected to Stand Up To Cancer, I want to close by thanking our scientists — you are our heroes. Your passion, your tireless commitment, your willingness to collaborate is so inspiring. You’re living proof that sharing is caring. This summit made me realize how appropriate SU2C’s mantra is: when we all stand together, cancer doesn’t stand a chance.
Check out this video from the Stand Up To Cancer Scientific Summit.