Cleveland and UH Seidman Cancer Center: The Epicenter for the Nation's Moonshot Effort Against Cancer

UH Seidman Cancer Center’s role in the Case Comprehensive Cancer Center models the collaboration at the heart of President Obama’s ‘moonshot’ initiative

 STANTON L. GERSON, MD

Innovations in Cancer - Summer 2016 - View Full PDF

The cancer community has long advocated for increased federal funding and a more collaborative approach to fighting the disease. There’s been some progress, but it’s been arguably incremental. So when President Obama announced the ‘moonshot’ effort to cure cancer in his January 2016 State of the Union address, Stan Gerson, MD, was taken a bit by surprise.

“I was astounded,” says Dr. Gerson, Director of University Hospitals Seidman Cancer Center. “In December 2015, Vice President Biden worked with Congress to give the National Institutes of Health the strongest resources that they’ve had in over a decade. Now, having President Obama move cancer research to the front burner is astonishing, and it really could be a game-changer.”

If Dr. Gerson has a small quibble, it’s with the moonshot analogy.

“The moonshot is a good analogy in that it took thousands upon thousands of bright minds to come together to put a man on the moon – engineers and scientists and people who are very creative. It will be the same with this fight against cancer. But curing cancer is a lot more complicated than any moonshot or space mission is going to be.”

In a memo to the directors of the nation’s 46 National Cancer Institute-designated Comprehensive Cancer Centers, NCI chief Douglas Lowy, MD, wrote that an important part of the moonshot effort will be “identifying current barriers to progress and developing specific ways to better coordinate federal efforts to support cancer research and care, partnerships with stakeholders, and implementation of findings.”

Already, this effort toward greater collaboration is under way at the Case Comprehensive Cancer Center at Case Western Reserve University, also led by Dr. Gerson. The unique NCI-designated center includes UH Seidman Cancer Center, the Cleveland Clinic Taussig Cancer Center and Case Western Reserve University.

“One of the things I’m very proud of under the Case Comprehensive Cancer Center is networking patient information and researchers across the two hospitals and the university,” Dr. Gerson says. “It gives us a much bigger platform to work from than almost any other city in the country. While protecting our patients’ identities, our goal is to share information across our entire community so that when one patient responds in one setting with one genetic background, it might help another patient. We regularly prove that institutional affiliation and disciplinary specialization need not represent barriers to progress, but rather can be sources of illumination that produce good results. Cleveland serves as a national example. It is not always easy to remove barriers to cures, but we work hard every day to collaborate for the common good.”

UH Seidman Cancer Center

Dr. Gerson says he has no problem with expecting cancer centers to be accountable for increased collaboration, even to the point of tying increased funding to increased collaboration. “It’s a reasonable expectation,” he says.

That said, however, he also has expectations that the administration and Congress will help the moonshot succeed by engaging on some of the thorny political issues. Two that immediately come to mind are insurance coverage of genomic testing and revision of HIPAA.

“The Vice President should use his leadership to spur Medicare and private insurers to pay for gene sequencing, a sea change in cancer research and treatment that enables targeted anti-cancer therapy, replacing the onesize-fits-all approach of the past,” Dr. Gerson wrote in a Cleveland Plain Dealer op-ed. “In addition, federal patient privacy laws such as HIPAA need to be adjusted to allow for more sharing of anonymous patient data to enable the kind of big-data analysis that can pinpoint which treatments work best for specific types of patients.”

Dr. Gerson, currently Vice President of the Association of American of Cancer Institutes (AACI), plans to continue focusing on these issues when he assumes the group’s two-year presidency in 2017. He says he will continue AACI’s mission and tradition of breaking down silos and facilitating cooperation by supporting cancer centers’ ability to work together. This approach dovetails nicely with the moonshot’s goal of revolutionizing the sharing of medical and research data.

“AACI cancer centers are a primary source for the generation, collection and use of molecular, clinical and outcomes data,” Dr. Gerson says. “However, the ability to network and engage these huge datasets, and do it efficiently with all the privacy concerns handled, is a huge challenge. It requires almost equal investments in the scientist with the test tube, the person sitting at the computer and the physician caring for the patient. Those three elements need to come together if this is going to work. But this initiative gives us the best shot in years.

“It’s a cost-effective strategy,” he continues. “We’re now at a place where dollars can be incredibly well-spent. The return on investment will be longer lives for patients, many more cures and certainly a better lifestyle for patients, with more people coming out of a cancer treatment and going back to work and going back to their communities and families. If we can nip away and make cancer part of life

and live beyond it, I think that’s the strategy.”

As the moonshot gets off the ground, UH Seidman Cancer Center is poised to play a leading role, Dr. Gerson says.

“Our biorepository capabilities, patient populations, bioinformatics, electronic medical record and the wealth of expertise on the research side allow us to put all the pieces together,” he says. “We’re excited to get to work. Our focus on innovation and clinical trials provides patients with unique opportunities to prevent cancer and treat it when it occurs.”

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