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Nation’s Top Cancer Doctor Promotes Research, Workforce Development During Cleveland Visit

ideastream's Kay Colby sits down with NCI Director Norman Sharpless and Dr. Stan Gerson, Director of the Case Comprehensive Cancer Center [CWRU School of Medicine]
ideastream's Kay Colby sits down with NCI Director Norman Sharpless and Dr. Stan Gerson, Director of the Case Comprehensive Cancer Center [CWRU School of Medicine]

Cleveland’s role in developing new and better ways to treat cancer got a boost during a recent visit from the director of the National Cancer Institute (NCI).  Doctor Norman "Ned" Sharpless delivered the keynote address on Wednesday, the closing day of a three-day conference, about cancer stem cells on the campus of Case Western Reserve University.

In a room packed full of scientists and doctors, Sharpless presented highlights of his own research focused on ways to mitigate the toxic side effects of chemotherapy on healthy cells. He also outlined funding opportunities available through NCI.  Sharpless said the NCI‘s budget for next year is projected to be over $6 billion. NCI is managing the science part of the Cancer Moonshot program, which was championed by former Vice President Joe Biden. NCI has a $400 million pool of what they call "Moonshot money", specfically designed to fund research initiatives that accelerate the process of bringing discoveries from the bench to the bedside.

During his stop in Cleveland, Dr. Sharpless toured the Case Comprehensive Cancer Center and got a firsthand look at some of the innovative work going on in local research labs.

ideastream's Kay Colby sits down with NCI Director Norman Sharpless and Dr. Stan Gerson, Director of the Case Comprehensive Cancer Center [CWRU School of Medicine]

The event marked the first visit to Cleveland by Sharpless, who took office in October 2017. He spent the first six months of his tenure on a listening tour with NCI employees, as well as patients and industry leaders to help him formulate plans about how best to improve cancer care.

“Taking time to learn what the NCI really is and what it’s doing well and how it operated was very important,” remarked Sharpless.

Cancer Workforce Needed to Treat Aging Population

In an interview conducted during his Cleveland visit, Sharpless detailed four key areas he plans to focus on while at the helm of NCI. One area centers on workforce development, which he says will be important due to the projected increase in cancer cases due to the aging population.  

“I'm not sure it's really appreciated how strongly related the incidence of cancer is to aging. Aging, in some ways, is the major carcinogen that people experience,” he said.

According to the American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO) by 2030, the incidence of cancer in the U.S. will increase by 45 percent. The largest increase is projected to be among older adults and minority populations. Experts are worried about the impending shortage of oncologists to care for the increasing number of patients.

“For a number of reasons the sort of silver tsunami, if you will, of aging in the United States and the attendant cancer burden is a real challenge for the NCI going forward,” he added.

Sharpless emphasized the importance of training more geriatric oncologists with special skills to treat older patients, as well as equipping more scientists with expertise in data management. Another key focus area for Dr. Sharpless is developing an infrastructure to manage and mine large sets of data. He explained the ability to cull and aggregate all the information buried in the electronic medical records of individual patients is paramount in this era of personalized medicine.

“We really need to understand the clinical features and the outcomes of all patients rather than learning from some subset in clinical trials,” he emphasized. “We really have to have a way of following what happens to everyone with cancer and learn from every patient.”

“That involves large sets of data. And as you know, the data are out there in the wild – trapped in these various sorts of medical records that were not really designed for research. And so figuring out how to get those data in a way that's safe and secure and respects privacy but is useful to scientists – that’s  really our challenge,” he said

Other key focus areas for Dr. Sharpless include updating and modernizing the system for conducting clinical trials, as well as continuing to nurture fundamental science to deepen our understanding about the biology of cancer.

Remarking on the $6 billion dollar budget currently projected for the NCI, Sharpless said, “Now is a good time to be a cancer researcher.”

 “There is good bipartisan support for cancer,” he added. 

kay.colby@ideastream.org | 216-916-6410