I have long been suspicious of people who use the word “moonshot” in the context of biomedical research. It’s lazy shorthand for “We’re going to spend a lot of money in a shorter period of time than usual”, and (as has been pointed out time without number), that approach was pretty suitable for the Apollo program. It was also suitable for the Manhattan project, which is the other example that things like this get compared to, although not nearly as much any more, since landing on the moon is more popular than the atomic bomb. But in both of those cases, the physical principles were not in doubt – there was just a vast amount of engineering and problem-solving to be done.
If you’re going to “cure cancer”, though, you first have to make the leap of faith that that’s possible. I tend to think (or hope) that it is, but let’s be honest about the difference. The Apollo scientists knew that reaching the moon could be done, with a large enough rocket and a good enough plan. The Manhattan Project folks knew that a runaway chain reaction would happen, under the right conditions – the problem was coming up with a design that would reliably produce those conditions. But cancer is not one problem. It’s a thousand problems or more, since (as has been emphasized here in the past) “cancer” is the name that we have assigned to the phenotype of unrestrained cellular growth, no matter how it’s arrived at. So you already have far more to deal with than the original moonshot did, because we still don’t understand those pathways all that well, and we don’t understand (in almost all cases) how best to alter them.
This all leads up to this article at Stat on Patrick Soon-Shiong’s cancer moonshot, which is not going all that smoothly, apparently. Actually, it’s worse, since that phrase implies technical difficulties. But what we have here is several rungs below that:
But a STAT investigation of Soon-Shiong’s cancer moonshot has found very little scientific progress. At its core, the initiative appears to be an elaborate marketing tool for Soon-Shiong — a way to promote his pricey new cancer diagnostic tool at a time when he badly needs a business success, as his publicly-traded companies are losing tens of millions per quarter. STAT also found several instances of inflated claims, with the moonshot team taking credit for progress that doesn’t appear to be real.
Soon-Shiong is definitely a promoter, for sure. But that’s forgivable if you deliver something after all the hype – I mean, Steve Jobs said a lot of crazy stuff over the years, too. It doesn’t appear that Soon-Shiong is, so far. Mostly he just seems to be promoting his “GPS Cancer” diagnostics platform, which has yet to be validated. (Side note: people who drag in terms like “GPS” because they’re well-known and sound effective are also to be viewed with skepticism). One thing I didn’t know is that MD Anderson is suing, because they have a trademark on the term “moonshot” as applied to cancer research (sheesh, I wouldn’t be proud of that, either, personally) and resent Soon-Shiong co-opting it. The suit doesn’t mess around:
The trademark infringement suit, which the cancer center continues to pursue, attacks Soon-Shiong in surprisingly personal terms. It claims that he has sullied the entire concept of a moonshot with his “nakedly self-enriching” behavior and his reputation as “a greedy, if not shady, billionaire businessman who oversells his ideas and falsely takes credit for other’s work.”
Just a few days ago, Soon-Shiong seems to have abandoned use of the term. But the Stat piece goes on to detail how inflated the claims of clinical breakthroughs seem to be, and it’s hard to see how they’re not right about that. The number of trials are juiced up, their significance, their results – everything is covered in heaps of glittery hype. This is a crazily hard field to make progress in, and claiming that you’re just making these incredible strides every day of the week is not doing anyone any good – well, unless your name is Patrick Soon-Shiong. You will not, perhaps, be surprised to hear that next week he’s unveiling a”genomics transcriptomics supercomputing medical reasoning engine”, which is a series of words calculated to make people who work in the field lower their heads to their desks in pain.
You will also not be surprised to hear that he’s met with officials from the Trump Administration about what he hopes will be some sort of “health czar” role. He seems like he’d fit right in. Worth keeping an eye on in case it happens.