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Realizing the Cancer Moonshot: The Importance of Behavioral and Environmental Data

Jul 23, 2017 5 Min. Read

The Cancer Moonshot, which aims to cure cancer once and for all, needs to account for environmental factors — not just clinical ones — in order to succeed.

What will it take to “cure” cancer once and for all? The answer might be closer than we thought.

In December 2016, Congress authorized $1.8 billion in funding for Cancer Moonshot, an ambitious initiative established by the Obama Administration and led by the National Cancer Institute (NCI), a division of the Nation Institutes of Health. What’s more, NCI recently established a centralized bioinformatics Genomics Data Commons and advocated for the development of clinical bioinformatics in the NCI Annual Plan & Budget Proposal for Fiscal Year 2017. These investments brought renewed attention to a disease — or rather, a collection of related diseases — that afflicts about 40 percent of U.S. men and women at some point in their lives and kills 500,000 Americans each year.

The announcements have prompted discussion about how we can harness the massive amounts of data on molecular, genetic, immunologic, and other clinical aspects of cancer to improve diagnosis and treatment. These data are typically located in disparate repositories (clinical research studies, electronic health records (EHR)/personal health records (PHR), genomic sequencing labs), which means that data science and relevant analytic methods will be crucial in merging them and harvesting insights.

To be truly effective in confronting cancer, though, we need to focus more attention and resources on the behavioral and environmental aspects of cancer —things like smoking, preventive health, and quality of care. A recommendation for more robust behavioral informatics — which uses data to better understand human behavior and communication — was noticeably absent from the Genome Commons and other initiatives that support the ultimate Cancer Moonshot goal. The recent announcement by NCI and NIH to develop a Blue Ribbon Panel of scientific experts, cancer leaders, and patient advocates — designed to inform the Cancer Moonshot Initiative — does reference cancer prevention and includes public health scientists, such as Dr. Barbara Rimer, on the panel. However, the key themes of the initiative, though, mentions little about the importance of behavioral and environmental factors.

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