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Coming in for a Landing: A Moonshot Initiative Q&A

Published on
March 9, 2016


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Vice President Joe Biden’s ambitious “Moonshot” initiative is aimed at boosting and streamlining cancer research across the country. We asked Andrei Thomas-Tikhonenko, PhD, chief of the Division of Cancer Pathobiology and an investigator for the Center for Childhood Cancer Research at The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, to share his thoughts on how this strategic plan is changing the landscape of pediatric cancer research. In many ways, it has opened a dialogue on how cancer research is conducted, the ways findings are disseminated, and the importance of collaboration. Read on for the edited conversation.

The moon is about 238,000 miles from Earth. How close are we to finding a cure for pediatric cancers? Is it realistic?

I have a worn-out T-shirt at home, issued to me in 1994 as Special Fellow of the Leukemia Society of America (now the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society). It says “CURE 2000,” and it was meant to convey the message that by the turn of the millennium there would be no more death from hematological cancers. As we all know, kids still die from lymphomas and leukemias, albeit not nearly as frequently. I don’t have a problem with lofty goals, as long as it is understood that we are talking about “a cure,” not “the cure.”  

VP Biden has described the current moment in cancer research as “an inflection point.” Do you agree, and if so, what aspects of the current state of cancer research knowledge have brought us to the brink of being able to shift in a new direction?

I absolutely agree with the statement about an inflection point. Next-generation sequencing and other integrative approaches are to cancer researchers what van Leeuwenhoek’s microscope was to 17th century physicians. Of course, as all microscopists and photographers know, sharpness and depth of field can be very hard to reconcile, but remarkably, the modern tools in our arsenal afford us both at the same time.

"There's a tradition of holding the data a little too close and we need to change that,” National Institutes of Health Director Francis Collins, MD, said at a panel discussion held at Penn’s Abramson Cancer Center about the Moonshot initiative launch. Do you agree, and why/why not?

Data hoarding certainly is a time-honored tradition, which arguably has propelled many illustrious academic careers, but probably stifled quite a few as well. While it has few public defenders, a surprisingly frank New England Journal of Medicine editorial recently raised the following concern: “… a new class of research person will emerge — people who had nothing to do with the design and execution of the study but use another group’s data for their own ends, possibly stealing from the research productivity planned by the data gatherers, or even use the data to try to disprove what the original investigators had posited. There is concern among some front-line researchers that the system will be taken over by what some researchers have characterized as ‘research parasites.’”

Their anxiety is understandable, but “symbiosis” or “commensalism” might be more apt terms than “parasitism.” Many labs (including my own) mine publicly available databases all the time, usually to validate (or disprove) their own lab-based discoveries. They also submit their own datasets to public repositories, and I am actually thrilled when someone uses and quotes our data. This, in my opinion, adds to the richness of scientific discourse and also helps enforce the rigor of data collection and interpretation.

The Moonshot initiative’s design calls for a collaborative effort. Can you give an example of how your research team is collaborating within and outside of CHOP to help break down scientific silos?

We have recently published a high profile paper on the molecular mechanisms underlying resistance to immunotherapy in leukemia patients, which turned out to be alternative splicing. Prior to initiating this work, my cancer biology lab had a very limited background in splicing, let alone immunotherapy. But this is where our research unexpectedly took us, and we were thrilled to find top-notch experts in these new fields right here on the CHOP-Penn campus. This may sound not very trendy, but a silo essentially is your in-depth expertise and, in my opinion, there is nothing wrong with building a silo per se — as long as you are willing to climb to its top and look around and see what’s happening in other silos and establish fair trade with your neighbors.

Dr. Thomas-Tikhonenko also is a professor of Pathology & Laboratory Medicine and Pediatrics at the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania. Read more about his research endeavors in B cell acute lymphoblastic leukemia and colorectal cancer.