Cancer Data Science Pulse

Informatics Community Crucial to the Cancer Moonshot

There has been a lot of press in the past couple of months about the "Cancer Moonshot," first mentioned by Vice President Joe Biden in October 2015, and gaining steam recently with the President's State of the Union address and an initial recommendation of $1 billion of funding. The White House released a Fact Sheet highlighting the exciting and transformative goals of the Moonshot. With the objective of doubling the pace of cancer discovery in the next five years, the focus of the Moonshot includes:

  • Increased efforts in the development of prevention and early screening techniques
  • Emphasis on immunotherapy and combination therapies
  • Continuing efforts to understand the molecular basis for cancer and all its complexity
  • Establishment of an Oncology Center of Excellence within the FDA, to speed approvals
  • Enhanced data sharing
  • Breaking down silos, eliminating obstacles and red tape, and finding ways to fund high-risk, high-reward opportunities in cancer research

What does this mean for cancer research? And what exactly can we, as informaticists and technologists, do to further the goals of the Moonshot?

The focus that the Vice President brings to data sharing is something we can get behind and help provide specificity. He articulates the importance of breaking down data silos between organizations and across industry, academia, and government. This is a critical step in accelerating the progress of cancer research. He describes the need to aggregate large data sets of cancer information, as well as to create the policies and standards to make patient-level cancer data accessible.

It's clear that the cancer informatics community has a crucial role to play. Creating simple, reproducible, scalable mechanisms for data access, and the infrastructure and tools that allow the data to be analyzed and turned into meaningful information, lies squarely in our wheelhouse. We also have the expertise to ensure patient data is secure and safe. Without a strong partnership and collaboration between the informatics community and the scientists conducting cancer research, we cannot unlock the full potential of cancer research data to further inform our knowledge of cancer and transform patient care.

What else can we do in the informatics community? We can take the Vice President's call to action seriously, as well as personally. For Vice President Biden, it's very personal, having lost his son, Beau, to cancer last year. For all but the lucky few, it is personal, too; we all have had family and friends who have battled cancer, and we know people who have lost that battle.

When the Vice President insists that he will eliminate barriers and shred red tape, he means it. And to make his words count, we need to take action too. He wants to "break down silos and bring all the cancer fighters together - to work together, share information, and end cancer as we know it." He has already started reaching out to academia and advocacy groups, and has convened a Task Force comprising the heads of 13 government executive branches, offices or agencies.

We can work to do the same. When we have the opportunity to share data, knowledge, tools, or techniques, we must do it.

When we have the opportunity to share data, knowledge, tools, or techniques, we must do it.
We are ethically and morally required to do so. And if we all contribute to the expectation of data sharing and collaboration, this will become the norm. This will benefit cancer patients, cancer research, and build on the comradery of valued collaborators we already have and increase our willingness to contribute. NCI will continue to fund collaborative projects, further emphasize collaboration, and ensure that meaningful data sharing plans and open source agreements are required for grantees. Additionally, the NCI will continue to recognize data sharing, software sharing, use of open standards, and participation in these activities as a valued part of cancer research.

Here at the Center for Biomedical Informatics and Information Technology (CBIIT), we have placed all of our software code out into the Open Source community via GitHub, and we are sponsoring as many projects as we can that democratize access to data and tools - projects like the Cancer Genomics Cloud and the NCIP Hub. More broadly, the NCI Informatics Technology for Cancer Research (ITCR) program is funding the kinds of innovation that can move the needle for the community. The NCI has championed open data standards for a long time and will continue to do so through the NCI Thesaurus, the caDSR and associated activities.

We need to advocate for broad patient consent so that crucial patient data can be utilized for research. We need to bring the patient into our research as partners and participants, and not as subjects. We need to elevate the spirit of openness and sharing as a key tenet of how we work, facilitating the kinds of change we all know are required. While it may sound clichéd to say we can only do this together, we all have something to contribute and as a community we will move forward faster.

To keep up with the progress of the Moonshot, follow the Vice President's Facebook page. Vice President Biden is the first VP in history to join Facebook, and is using it to raise awareness and communicate about the Cancer Moonshot!

Dr. Warren Kibbe
Director of the NCI Center for Biomedical Informatics and Information Technology
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