Why the cancer 'moonshot' is not a fitting metaphor

In his latest State of the Union Address, President Barack Obama called for a renewed effort to cure cancer under the "National Cancer Moonshot" initiative, which has a budget of nearly $1 billion. Although the nature and scope of the initiative seems to mirror the romanticized space exploration imagery its name evokes, some critics say "moonshot" is not an accurate comparison for cancer research, according to The New York Times.

"I'm putting Joe [Biden] in charge of Mission Control," President Obama said in the speech. "For the loved ones we've all lost, for the families that we can still save, let's make America the country that cures cancer once and for all."

The term "moonshot" is reminiscent of President John F. Kennedy's 1961 speech in which he called for the launch of a space program that would successfully land a man on the moon — a lofty goal that was achieved just eight years later. The metaphor stuck. In 1971, President Richard Nixon alluded to space travel and atomic energy when talking about the need to combat cancer, according to NYT. In 2000, President George W. Bush called for a "medical moonshot" to cure the disease.

The moonshot metaphor is alluring because it evokes past examples of seemingly impossible goals achieved through strong American will and loads of federal funding. However, research shows the NASA space program is not a good comparison for researching a cure for cancer.

When Nixon first employed the metaphor, scientists believed cancer was a single disease that could be treated with a single cure. However, now we know cancer is not one disease, but many with complex variations and triggers. The variety of initiatives included under the moonshot effort demonstrates this, as it includes vaccines for some cancers, combination drug therapies for others and immunotherapy treatments for others, according to the report.

Additionally, although researchers have welcomed the prospect of additional cancer funding, the $1 billion budget will likely not transform their work. The Tufts Center for the Study of Drug Development estimates the cost of bringing a single new cancer drug to the market is $1.4 billion. The annual budget for the National Cancer Institute is already $5.2 billion. The name "moonshot" suggests a groundbreaking set of new efforts in the fight against cancer, but the program's funding represents just a small portion of the current national spending on cancer research, according to the report.

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