New cancer ‘moonshot’ by President Obama, and Illumina takes up early detection of cancer

BruceFingerhood_MoonThis week saw the last of the State of the Union addresses by President Obama, and those of us at EPICentre were gladdened by the priority he gave to cancer. In stirring words he talked of ‘For the loved ones we have all lost, for the family we can still save, let’s make America the country that cures cancer once and for all’. The details of the initiative are not clear, although it will be led by vice-president Joe Biden who last year lost his son to a brain cancer. A statement from his office indicates how he intends to proceed, including discussions with international cancer experts at the Economic Forum in Davos next week. While political involvement at such a level can only be a good thing for the cancer community, we hope that the essential role of prevention and early detection will be given equal priority to the important role of delivering and improving treatments. As we have argued in the past, we are not going to treat our way out of the cancer problem.

In another development, Illumina announced the formation of a new company called GRAIL with a focus on developing screening tests for early detection of cancer by measuring circulating DNA in the bloodstream. As has been discussed in other EPICentre blog items, the development of such a test could prove to be a major breakthrough in detection of cancers at a treatable stage, although the barriers to this are extremely important. The new company starts with venture funding of $100 million, and discusses the potential to initiate large randomized trials to test new potential DNA detection kits. Their focus seems to be on developing tools that are sensitive enough to detect the very small amounts of circulating tumour DNA that are likely to be present in early stage pre-clinical tumours. While this is another extremely positive development, we would envisage that strong collaboration with the academic sector where much of the current research is ongoing, will greatly speed up development of this technology, and will also require access to large population based studies for subsequent validation. Indeed, scientists at IARC have made this field a priority in recent years and hope to publish findings for several cancers over the next 12 months. One concern among IARC scientists is that sporadic cancer mutations in circulating DNA may be detected even in individuals with no trace of cancer. The issue of specificity (i.e. false positive results) may turn out to be even more problematic that sensitivity.

Paul Brennan

Paul Brennan

Paul Brennan is head of the Genetics Section at the International Agency for Research on Cancer, and also one of the EPIC principal investigators. Most of his work focuses on identifying new biomarkers and genes that are involved in some common cancers and how this knowledge can inform cancer prevention, either through identification of new risk factors or early detection.

Research Interests: Cancer aetiology and prevention.
Paul Brennan

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