The MD Anderson Cancer Center at the University of Texas in Houston has set a high bar for itself. In a press conference yesterday the Center announced it would spend up to $3 billion over the next ten years to reduce mortality rates in eight different cancers (H/T Nature News blog). The Center is fully embracing the Apollo announcement paradigm, calling the program Cancer Moon Shots, and all but riding rocket ships in this promotional video.
While I appreciate the potential of the Apollo example to galvanize a population, a moon shot is now a shorthand that runs the risk of over-simplifying what is required. The Apollo program was a massive undertaking, and the Cancer Moon Shots will be as well. Given the similar metaphor in the 1970s of a “War on Cancer,” and how that war helped us understand how devilishly complicated this kind of disease is, I can’t help but be a little skeptical of how close MD Anderson will get to its goal.
Let’s be clear, the Center has done its homework to identify cancers and advances in technology that can respond to a massive infusion of capital. But the expectations game is hard to manage when people are as directly affected as they are by disease. MD Anderson needs to have the room to let deadlines slip, to have the room to fail. And if the center wraps itself too tightly in the Apollo metaphor, I’m concerned that patients and donors won’t be so committed if MD Anderson can’t be as successful as it expects to be.