Cancer Research is Not Rocket Science: It is Even Harder

February 18, 2016 by jsl8f@virginia.edu   |   Leave a Comment

President Obama made a surprising announcement at his State of the Union address this year: A moonshot program against cancer headed by Vice President Biden.  I must admit a feeling of excitement and concern simultaneously flowed through my veins. How wonderful it is to hear the President of the United States highlighting the importance of cancer research, I thought.  Finally, we will get some relief from the serious reductions in funding for basic search. Suddenly, a wave of fear came over me. Is this another War on Cancer that promised so much and then disappoints? After all, we clearly have not defeated cancer. As you might imagine, public praise and condemnation quickly followed. Groups like the American Association for Cancer Research, of which I am a member, were elated. Others cautioned that there are many moons not just one so we need to manage expectations.   Derek Lowe was once again articulate on the subject when he said “This is not the sort of problem that’s likely to be vulnerable to a sudden infusion of cash, and there’s a real chance that funding things that way will, in the end, just make things slightly worse.” (see his blog site:http://blogs.sciencemag.org/pipeline/archives/2016/02/18/a-terrific-paper-on-the-problems-in-drug-discovery).

The moonshot metaphor got me thinking about an expression I often hear, “It’s not rocket science” and wondering about its etymology. After doing a little research of my own, I found its origin is rather controversial. The expression seems to be distinctly American, having superseded the “brain surgery” metaphor sometimes used in the 1980s to describe tasks that were not simple. Searching the web,  I came across a notation indicating the expression was first used in reference to American football (http://www.phrases.org.uk/meanings/its-not-rocket-science.html). According to this website the local newspaper in my mother’s hometown, The Doylestown (PA) Daily Intelligencer, first used the phrase in December 1985. They quoted a local football coach saying: “Coaching football is not rocket science and it’s not brain surgery. It’s a game, nothing more.” I called the editor of the Daily Intelligencer to verify the citation but sadly he demurred so I guess the jury is still out as to its origin.

Interestingly, my research turned up another controversy. There seems to be some debate about the actual existence of field called “Rocket science”. Some would argue there are engineers who design rocket but the science is actually astrophysics. Nonetheless, it seems to be a common public perception that getting a rocket to go to the moon or elsewhere is a complex problem that most of us mere mortals would find challenging. No doubt getting a rocket to circle around Saturn or fly within a few thousand kilometers of Pluto requires a phenomenal understanding and application of mathematics and physics but I would suggest it is easy compared to curing cancer. Here are some things to ponder:

  • The Space Shuttle is the most complex machine humans have ever built, with >2.5 million parts (as John Glenn famously once said “all built by the lowest bidder on a government contract”).
  • Human 10 million million (that is 1 followed by 13 zeros) cells precisely assembled with ten time more bacteria cells.
  • We all have 3 billion base pairs in our DNA.
  • It has been estimated that our DNA undergoes one million DNA changes per day caused by our environment and daily activities. Many of these must be properly repaired to prevent mutations and cancer.

So perhaps a moonshot is needed to increase our national funding of cancer research but we should all remember this will be a marathon rather than a sprint. Cancer is as complex as it is lethal. It is only with sustained funding of fundamental research, along with the translation of this basic knowledge into the diagnostics and therapies will we truly be about to control and possibly even cure cancer.

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