In many ways, it’s a science success story: 8-year-old boy with a rare form of brain cancer is treated by one of the world’s leading experts in the disease, who collaborates with a pioneering precision medicine institute to sequence his cancer and create a first-of-its-kind tumor model replica in the lab, allowing for further analysis and treatment testing without risk of harm to the child.
Upon analysis, the physician-scientist discovers a mutation previously not known to be linked to that type of cancer — and it happens to be in the protein that his colleague has spent a career studying. He contacts the colleague to ask if there is a drug to target the protein, and it arrives the next day. Applied to the tumor model, the drug effectively kills 80-90 percent of the diseased cells.
If only the story ended there.
Unfortunately, although the drug has been approved by the FDA, it cannot be used on the young patient because it has never been tested in children, and the pharmaceutical company controlling the drug is not willing to take the risk.
“We now start the gymnastics of trying to get permission from the FDA based on compassionate use,” said Jeffrey Greenfield, M.D., Ph.D. “We’ve done it before, and it takes anywhere from 3-6 months. This boy doesn’t have 3-6 months.”
Greenfield, a neurosurgeon at Weill Cornell Medicine and NewYork-Presbyterian, shared the anecdote at a special event held at Weill Cornell Medicine on June 29, one of 270 across the United States convened by Vice President Joe Biden in tandem with a national summit at Howard University in Washington, DC
Biden invited regional participants to discuss the goals of the “Cancer Moonshot” mission, announced in January by President Barack Obama as a way to accelerate cancer research, foster data sharing and collaboration, and improve patient access to care — all on a five-year timeline.
Greenfield said his story summed up some of the challenges the nation will face in trying to achieve such an ambitious goal.
“The promise of precision medicine, which is enormous and which we have all bought into, doesn’t deliver in this case,” Greenfield said. “We’ve done all the work that we’ve promised to do, and we still have hurdles. The science is great, the medicine is great, but we’ve got to figure out a way to bridge the chasm between academia, pharma and clinic.”
The future is now
Greenfield was joined at the event by more than a dozen other distinguished researchers and physicians, as well as a standing-room only crowd of around 100.
Participants heard that in many ways, the future of medicine is already here. Silvia Formenti, M.D., discussed how she uses radiation therapy to turn patients’ own tumors into internal “vaccines,” and Ching Tung, Ph.D., director of the Molecular Imaging Innovations Institute described new ways of “seeing” cancer.
Neurosurgeon Mark Souweidane, M.D., spoke about the importance of developing new forms of drug delivery and working with industry to be able to integrate research and technology into the operating room. His colleagues Susan Pannullo, M.D., and Michael Kaplitt, M.D., Ph.D., explained stereotactic radiosurgery and the use of ultrasound technology to poke holes in the blood-brain barrier.
“These are ways we can use novel non-invasive technologies that will put us as surgeons out of business, unfortunately, but will help heal the world,” Kaplitt said.
“The idea isn’t new, “Roboz said. “What’s new is that we can actually do it, we are able to finally do things that were Jetsons level before.”
“In 2016, we are at an amazing inflection point in cancer therapy,” added neurosurgeon Rohan Ramakrishna, M.D. “It’s one thing to say you want to accomplish big change in five years, it’s another to be able to do that.”
But he added that the time it takes to get discoveries from bench to bedside is still too long. We need to innovate, Ramakrishna said, and we need to incentivize high-risk research.
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