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The time is now

Moon Shots Program launches a decisive assault against cancer

Promise - Fall 2012

By Maria Ward McIntosh

When President John F. Kennedy challenged the nation with his famous “moon shot” speech in Houston 50 years ago, he recognized the unprecedented potential of his era. It was a time when new knowledge, emerging technologies and can-do spirit could enable accomplishments once thought impossible. Inspired by that challenge and today’s similar opportunity for extraordinary achievement, MD Anderson has launched an all-out assault on cancer: the Moon Shots Program. This comprehensive initiative will integrate efforts across the entire cancer continuum — from prevention and early detection to treatment and survivorship — in a pioneering plan to drastically reduce cancer mortality and improve quality of life after cancer.

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“Patients urgently need MD Anderson’s formidable knowledge and infrastructure, its courage to pursue great challenges in cancer medicine and its determination to defeat cancer,” says Ronald DePinho, M.D., president of MD Anderson. “Cancer is a global crisis, causing nearly 8 million deaths worldwide each year, and that toll will rise rapidly as the population grows and ages. The time to act is now, when an unparalleled convergence of deep knowledge and technological advances gives us the tools we need to make a real and measurable difference. It’s essential that we go beyond discovery and deliver solutions to finally put this disease in the history books.”  

The multidisciplinary program begins with six “moon shots” aimed at overcoming eight cancers; breast and ovarian, lung, chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL), acute myeloid leukemia/myelodysplastic syndrome (AML/MDS), melanoma and prostate. These initial projects showed exceptional promise among proposals presented in July to a panel of internal and external experts led by Frank McCormick, Ph.D., president of the American Association for Cancer Research. Together, the proposals focused on a number of cancers that represent the majority of cancer mortality.

"The moon shot infrastructure will have broad impact across all programs. Ultimately, we want to apply this first-of-its-kind, action-oriented model to eradicating every type of cancer.”

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                            - Ronald DePinho, M.D.
President of MD Anderson

“The inaugural moon shots were selected because they have a mature understanding of the disease underpinnings, proof-of-concept in the clinic and existing technologies capable of driving progress quickly and decisively,” says DePinho. “But those that were not chosen offer comprehensive strategies for advancing research in their areas. So while we pursue the first moon shots, we will support additional programs with the goal of elevating them also to moon shot status. The moon shot infrastructure will have broad impact across all programs. Ultimately, we want to apply this first-of-its-kind, action-oriented model to eradicating every type of cancer.”

Ambitious goals, results-oriented plans

The short-term goal for each moon shot is to lower mortality quickly by converting current knowledge into prevention methods, early-detection strategies and more effective combinations of existing drugs. In the long term, each moon shot team will seek to discover the root causes of a particular cancer, identify all genetic targets that drive and sustain it, and translate resulting knowledge into risk-control strategies and new, more effective therapies with fewer long-term side effects.

The Moon Shots Program combines industrial-scale enterprise with academic expertise, integrating hundreds of MD Anderson researchers and clinicians across departments to rapidly move novel findings into clinical applications that work for patients. At every step, comprehensive, science-driven “go/no-go” work plans will stress results — positive or negative. This will enable moon shot teams to pursue positive leads and abandon unpromising projects before they reach clinical trials.

“This is critical because the current cancer drug development system offers only a 5% success rate, with most failures occurring in late-stage clinical testing. This is an unacceptable return on hugely expensive, time-consuming efforts and a terrible burden for thousands of patients and families who are counting on us,” says DePinho. “The collapse derives from a system that has failed to effectively move discoveries to clinical advances. At MD Anderson, we’re shaping a new system that we believe will accelerate and improve the process and change the dismal statistics.”

DePinho says research decisions will be driven by patient needs, not market potential — strengthening the program’s impact on all patients.

Partners in philanthropy

While achievements fueled by past philanthropy have helped lay the foundation for each moon shot, additional investment is required to advance an effort of this magnitude

To succeed, the Moon Shots Program will need millions of dollars of private philanthropy and foundation support, as well as grants from federal and state research funding sources. Philanthropic resources will significantly impact the institution’s ability to build the necessary infrastructure. Platforms in such areas as cancer control and prevention, translational research, early detection and prognosis, drug discovery, data analytics and biospecimen collection (see graphic at right) will support each moon shot — and help ensure rapid progress in the fight against cancer.

“We must deliver on this promise,” says DePinho. “Philanthropic support has always played a crucial role in MD Anderson’s mission to eradicate cancer, and thanks to past contributions from generous donors, the institution has a strong foundation to articulate a bold plan and get the job done. There has never been a greater opportunity for community and industry leaders to help advance a lifesaving initiative that will reduce the cancer burden for everyone.”  

For more information and to make a donation, visit:

Moon shots leadership

Acute Myeloid Leukemia/Myelodysplastic Syndrome
Guillermo Garcia-Manero, M.D.  
Professor, Department of Leukemia
Hagop M. Kantarjian, M.D.
Chair and professor, Department of Leukemia

Breast and Ovarian
Mien-Chie Hung, Ph.D.
Chair and professor, Department of Molecular and Cellular Oncology
Gordon Mills, M.D., Ph.D.
Chair, Department of Systems Biology
Anil Sood, M.D.
Professor, Department of Gynecologic Oncology and Reproductive Medicine and Department of Cancer Biology

Chronic Lymphocytic Leukemia
Michael Keating, M.B.
Professor, Department of Leukemia
William Plunkett, Ph.D.
Professor, Department of Experimental Therapeutics

Stephen Swisher, M.D.
Chair and professor, Department of Thoracic and Cardiovascular Surgery
John Heymach, M.D., Ph.D.
Associate professor, Department of Thoracic/Head and Neck Medical Oncology

Jeffrey Gershenwald, M.D.
Professor, Department of Surgical Oncology
Michael Davies, M.D., Ph.D.
Assistant professor, Department of Melanoma Medical Oncology

Christopher Logothetis, M.D.
Chair and professor, Department of Genitourinary Medical Oncology
Timothy Thompson, Ph.D.
Professor, Department of Genitourinary Medical Oncology - Research

Moon shots momentum

MD Anderson’s online donor community contributed approximately $6,000 in four days following the Sept. 20 launch of the institution’s moon shots website. Visit and make your donation today.

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© 2015 The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center