National Cancer Institute Director Dr. Norman Sharpless: 'We cannot work on just the easy cancers,' must 'work on all of them'

Norman Sharpless, MD, director of the National Cancer Institute, said the medical industry must learn how to use basic science to treat cancer and be open to incorporating big data into treatment plans, according to The Washington Post.

Previously the head of the Chapel Hill, N.C.-based UNC Lineberger Comprehensive Cancer Center, Dr. Sharpless was named head of the NCI, the largest institute of the National Institutes of Health, in October 2017.

Dr. Sharpless has been in the midst of a "listening tour" for the past several months, talking to employees, patients, researchers and industry experts about the field, according to the publication. He shared some of his thoughts on current trends and research during an April 16 speech in Chicago and during a recent interview with The Washington Post.

Here are four thoughts Dr. Sharpless shared on cancer care.

1. Current cancer research and treatment is driven by the realization the condition comprises innumerable subtypes of diseases, all requiring their own individual treatment, Dr. Sharpless said. For example, he noted lung cancer most likely comprises 100-plus clinically distinct diseases.

2. Dr. Sharpless said based on the new understanding of the disease, current clinical trials for cancer drugs are outmoded and inefficient. He also noted issues with the way in which patients are selected for clinical trials. Rising per-patient costs for trials and varying eligibility criteria have resulted in only 5 percent of adult cancer patients enrolling in trials, which often do not even proceed, he said. Instead, more trials should be conducted at community oncology practices, where 85 percent of patients are treated, rather than solely at academic medical centers nationwide, Dr. Sharpless noted.

3. Medical professionals must also begin using big data to understand, prevent and treat cancer. Scientists must engage in active data sharing — putting data in the cloud to share with other researchers. By doing so, scientists can better aggregate data and potentially determine which therapies will work for certain patients based on the biology of their tumors, he said.

4. However, one of Dr. Sharpless' most important findings following discussions during his listening sessions was that scientists must attempt to make progress against all cancers. "We cannot work on just the easy cancers or the common ones or the best-understood ones. We have to work on all of them," he said.

To access The Washington Post report, click here.

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