In the News: AACR President Nancy E. Davidson, MD, on Capturing the Moonshot’s Momentum

Editor’s Note: The following editorial written by American Association for Cancer Research (AACR) President Nancy E. Davidson, MD, appeared in May 20, 2016, edition of The Cancer Letter. In the editorial, Davidson discusses her goals for her presidential year at the AACR including ensuring the AACR remains a strong platform for collaborations in cancer research, developing the careers of the nation’s young investigators, and bringing together experts in cancer prevention to expedite breakthroughs.

Capturing the Moonshot’s Momentum 

By Nancy E. Davidson, MD

Nancy E. Davidson, MD

Nancy E. Davidson, MD

Vice President Joe Biden’s National Cancer Moonshot Initiative has touched off an unprecedented national and international dialogue about cancer.

My Presidential year at the American Association for Cancer Research brings the special opportunity to ensure that this momentum is captured and fully utilized to position cancer research as the key to saving more lives from cancer.

The AACR has been, and continues to be, a trusted adviser to the vice president on this important initiative.

Twelve AACR members met with Biden’s staff in the White House before the initiative was even officially announced during President Obama’s State of the Union address. Three AACR Presidents were part of a small meeting of international leaders in cancer research and treatment that the vice president convened at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, to discuss potential opportunities to advance the pace of progress against cancer.

And just a few weeks ago, Vice President Biden and his wife, Jill Biden spoke to more than 4,000 attendees at our 2016 Annual Meeting in New Orleans. The vice president emphasized that among the moonshot’s goals is collaboration, and the AACR provides the perfect platform for collaborations, bringing together the greatest minds in cancer research to help support the initiative.

The AACR is well positioned to identify the most important areas of transformative research that have the potential to advance the field and to encourage scientists to take an integrative approach to cancer research, which is pivotal to making big leaps against cancer.

The first task for every AACR President is to be a good steward for the organization, and to build upon the outstanding initiatives started by one’s predecessors to serve our members and the broader cancer research community and, by extension, our patients.

We must remain the preeminent organization for all things related to cancer research, spanning the whole spectrum of basic research, translational research and therapeutic discovery, clinical science and delivery, and prevention and implementation science.

To continue to do this well, we need to focus on the education and training of scientists at all career levels as well as to inform the public about the vital importance of research to their health and to the lives of their loved ones.

One of my top priorities is to strengthen our focus on young investigators by furthering the AACR initiatives such as the NextGen Stars program, which increases the visibility of early-career scientists at our Annual Meetings, and the NextGen Grants for Transformative Cancer Research, which fund and stimulate highly innovative research from young investigators.

The AACR will continue to be the “scientific go-to-place” for investigators early in their careers, and we must make ourselves indispensable to them as they pursue their future in cancer research. My goal is to ensure that they become and remain lifelong members of the AACR, that they are well trained and resourced to take on the challenges of the field, and that their future as investigators is assured, for they will become the future leaders in cancer research.

A critical component to making progress against cancer is diversity—that is, disciplinary diversity, gender and ethnic diversity, and geographic diversity in the cancer workforce that includes young and senior investigators across the spectrum of cancer science and medicine and related biomedical and other sciences.

The AACR champions the critical roles of young investigators, women, and minorities, through initiatives such as the Associate Member Council, Women in Cancer Research, and Minorities in Cancer Research.

I am committed to further supporting these important programs to increase the professional opportunities for these researchers. Also, by bringing into the membership other scientists that have an ever greater role in the field—physical scientists, engineers, mathematicians, and computational biologists—we will be able to stimulate creativity and enrich our approaches to the conquest of cancer.

The AACR is poised to help in this area of convergence and it will be exciting to consider how we can have an increasing emphasis on integrative cancer research.

We are excited to have initiated AACR Project GENIE, a collaborative effort that involves seven leading global organizations in genomic sequencing, to collect, catalog, and link tumor genetic data with data on patient outcomes.

The goals of GENIE align with a major goal of the Moonshot Initiative, namely, that of data sharing, and we are delighted that an AACR Expert Panel has been, and will continue to be, involved in offering insights into priorities that can help achieve the vice president’s goals.

We will work diligently to link the AACR’s top scientific priorities with those of the Blue Ribbon Panel on the Moonshot Initiative to speed progress against cancer at this critical time in the cancer field.

To chart our future, the AACR board of directors has just completed its strategic plan, titled “AACR Vision 2020 Strategic Plan: A Roadmap for Growth and Impact.”

This multifaceted strategic plan has identified seven major goals and numerous objectives that will serve the cancer community and the public over the next five years. A key goal of the plan is to identify the hot scientific priorities and emerging cancer research topics that will have great promise to reduce cancer incidence and mortality. The biggest trends today are, of course, immunology, immunotherapy, and genomic medicine. Our quest is to identify early the next big wave that will accelerate progress against cancer.

Another priority for AACR Vision 2020 is to address the increasing needs of our members, who are our “heart and soul.” Since cancer is a global problem, the AACR will take steps to increase its international programs and presence as more than 30 percent of our members live and work outside the United States.

We look forward to devising new categories of membership to better serve disciplines that have traditionally not been a part of the organization. Our strategic plan also emphasizes the need to make the AACR a home for physician-scientists by providing new member benefits, funding, and mentorship opportunities.

Though I have largely worked as a cancer biologist and therapist, my key scientific focus this year will be reenergizing our activities in cancer prevention and early detection as they have been major contributors to the decline in cancer incidence and mortality.

The AACR has historically been committed to research and dissemination efforts to prevent cancer; indeed one of the 11 founding members of our organization was a cancer prevention expert.

A number of past presidents focused on this important aspect, and this exciting scientific area is a priority for me as well, particularly because it is an excellent time to address the science of cancer interception, given our increasing understanding of the biology of the disease and the tremendous advances in human genetics and genomics.

AACR leaders recently published a position piece to address the future of cancer prevention in one of its scientific journals, Cancer Prevention Research. In February 2016, the AACR hosted a summit, “Shaping the Future of Cancer Prevention: A Roadmap for Integrative Cancer Science and Public Health.”

The summit convened a diverse array of experts to discuss the current opportunities and challenges of prevention science and identify the future research directions needed to expedite breakthroughs in cancer prevention.

We hope to work closely with Vice President Biden in the effort to identify important priorities in cancer prevention research to be addressed as part of the Cancer Moonshot Initiative. We as cancer researchers cannot do this alone. We need a coalition of willing and committed citizens to work with us.

As we continue to expand our grant-giving efforts and outreach to donors via the AACR Foundation, one of the big goals of the year is to continuously educate the public about cancer. Informing the public, patient advocates, and legislators about cancer research as the driver of improved clinical outcomes is vital, as cancer touches all of us, either directly or indirectly.

Knowledge and awareness are fundamental, and public education also plays a major role in addressing cancer health disparities and narrowing the gap in cancer incidence and mortality among minorities and the medically underserved.

We also know that progress in cancer research has long yielded progress against other diseases. Since 2013, the AACR has spearheaded an annual Rally for Medical Research on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., partnering with about 300 organizations, representing a diverse array of diseases, to highlight interdisciplinary dependence and the need to enhance funding for medical research.

With our valued partners we will continue to bring the medical research community together in solidarity over the message that great science leads to great medicine, and neither is possible without increased federal funding for all areas of medical research. In this election year, we thank Congress and the president for the $2 billion increase in the National Institutes of Health budget in fiscal year 2016 and respectfully request a 7 percent increase to $34.5 billion for NIH in the next year to sustain our scientific momentum.

In 2017, the American Association for Cancer Research will mark its 110th anniversary in its quest to prevent and cure all cancers.

Our organization has a long and illustrious history of identifying important scientific priorities, convening programs to address emerging scientific areas, and accelerating advances against cancer by helping to inspire new and creative ideas about how to address the complexities of cancer.

Cancer researchers have made significant progress in lowering both cancer incidence and death rates and in improving survival and quality of life for patients over these years. However, as we know, cancer is not just one disease, but a myriad of extremely complex diseases.

Fortunately, much of the progress we have made in recent years is exponential rather than incremental. But clearly, there is now an even greater urgency to accelerate the pace of progress in order to put an end to this scourge on humanity.

Nancy E. Davidson, MD, currently serves as President of the AACR, and is also the director of the University of Pittsburgh Cancer Institute, the Hillman professor of oncology, associate vice chancellor for cancer research, and a distinguished professor of medicine at the University of Pittsburgh.