I, along with others, listened intently to President Obama and Vice President Biden talk emotionally about a “Moon Shot” for a cure for cancer. Congress is on board, along with just about every American. After all, the cause is noble, the life saving potential is clear, so let’s all just move on and get it done – right?
I have been a project manager for decades, mainly in the Federal Government and I can tell you that just the pure definition of “Moon Shot” is a misnomer to this very large (and expensive) venture for which we have embarked.
First, the original moon shot had a time frame. President Kennedy stated in his State of the Union address very specifically the time frame for landing on the moon – by years end of 1969 (“by the end of the decade”). Okay, what is the time frame of the Cancer “Moon Shot?” I see that there is web site that speaks to the Moon Shot 2020 initiative, which so far is split into 3 Phases, the last one implementing new immunotherapy by 2020. In this instance, at least there is a time frame explicitly stated, so at least something is in relative stone, although the “intermediate” steps to these 3 Phases is still in “fluidity.” This could be an issue in the future since 2020 is less than 3 years away!
However, even President Obama does not believe that a cure can be completed in that amount of time. President Obama stated to a group of school kids that “[cancer] probably won’t be cured in my lifetime, but I think it will be cured in yours.” (http://www.politico.com/story/2016/01/joe-biden-cancer-research-moonshot-217854). This is one of the champions of the “Moon Shot.” That is not a real confidence builder for me if I was the project manager on this one.
Second, the physical goal of the Cancer “Moon Shot” is a moving target. The Moon was not unpredictable. We could calculate the orbit of the Moon and make the adjustments accordingly to plan the landing — even where to put the Lunar Excursion Module. Cancer is a very unpredictable disease since it adapts to individuals and progresses at times silently until the body reacts. If the goal is to get an immunotherapy by 2020, how will the disease look then? With the genome map, will the disease adapt to new environments? Cancer is still a moving target. The frustrations that exist in this endeavor are those that have existed since we have started this battle and will continue until we can get a step ahead of the cancer. Maybe the REAL goal is not to provide immunotherapy, but to predict where it will strike and prevent it. A vaccine might be something that will help, but certainly this is not small pox or polio, although at the time these diseases were as illusive and cunning as cancer is now.
Finally, what is the number one killer of people in the United States? I keep hearing that it is cancer and that would be false! The number one killer in the US is the same one that has existed for decades (that’s right – decades) — heart disease. If you do not believe me, then I refer you to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) which publishes a yearly look at deaths from various causes (https://www.cdc.gov/nchs/data/nvsr/nvsr65/nvsr65_05.pdf*). We have yet to solve the heart disease problem, although we are making progress in the treatment and prevention of the disease, but all of this comes down to making small steps.
So, let’s review. The three areas of a project that are vital are cost, time, and quality. The cost for this project has yet to be specified, since studies could increase in cost as well as the various costs for new research facilities, bureaucracies (like the National Institutes of Health departments that will be developed as a result of this initiative), and other as of yet unspecified costs. The only time frame I see is for the 3 Phases and the 2020 end date. It took 10 years (or close to it) to get two humans on the Moon. It cost billions, and a number of lives in the process. That was the 1960s! And the most important thing is that there is a champion like Joe Biden who has taken on the initiative, but even scientists are concerned that his clout will wane after he leaves office (http://www.politico.com/story/2016/01/joe-biden-cancer-research-moonshot-217854). At this point, although there is a great start to the requirements (the quality end of project management), the actual milestones are few which can lead to some problems in the future when the “lesser” more attainable requirements are avoided for the more “optical” results.
And please remember that this is all a good cause, but the numbers that die from cancer are still less than those that die from heart disease. I did a little research on age vs disease and the results are below. From this chart you can see that the death from cancer occurs at younger ages than heart disease. If the Cancer 2020 effort is focusing on older study patients are they really focusing on that age group that is the proper target? Just food for thought.
I wish the study a great deal of good fortune. Eliminating cancer is something that will undoubtedly help us a nation to build our future with our present population. And it is easy to cheer on this effort. Its nobility is something that is indisputable.
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