Cancer Dream Teams: Road to a Cure?

Group-think is that latest trend in cancer research. This week's cover story, available to subscribers, explains why such team efforts are becoming a necessity, and why it hasn't always been this way.

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Christopher Morris / VII for TIME

Surgeon, Jeffrey Drebin, M.D., Ph.D at Penn Medicine performing what is known as a Whippie operation.

Group-think is that latest trend in cancer research. This week’s cover story, available to subscribers here, explains why such team efforts are becoming a necessity, and why it hasn’t always been this way.

Scientists used to think they knew a lot about how cancer works, and they do. But only over the last couple of years, led by major advances in genomics, have they been able to truly understand the biological workings of this leading killer. And the knowledge has been both helpful and humbling. Cancer, it turns out, is way more complex than many scientists imagined. And it has raised the question of whether the research paradigm we use to attack cancer needs an overhaul.  Group science may be the better model for fighting cancer over the traditional approach of a narrowly focused investigator beavering away, one small grant at a time.

That’s been the premise behind Stand Up 2 Cancer’s Dream Team approach and it is gaining traction. In 2008 a group including Spider-Man producer Laura Ziskin, who lost her battle with breast cancer in 2011; Katie Couric, who lost her husband to colon cancer in 1998; and former Paramount CEO Sherry Lansing founded SU2C with the goal of attacking cancer the way you make a movie: bring the best and most talented people together, fund them generously, oversee their progress rigorously and shoot for big payoffs―on a tight schedule.

TIME Magazine Cover, April 1, 2013

(MORE: A Shot at Cancer)

There are now nine (soon to be 10) such cross-disciplinary, cross-institutional research teams backed by SU2C. One of them is taking advantage of the latest developments in epigenetics, and conducting clinical trials focused on the enzymatic on/off switches that physically settle onto the genome and regulate whether and how loudly genes genes will be expressed. This includes the mutated genes that crank out cancer cells. While science can’t do much to change the genome, epigenetic functions are manipulated all the time―sometimes inadvertently, by exposure to environmental chemicals, say; other times cleverly, by drugs. Participating in these trials has helped one patient, Tom Stanback, shrink lung tumors associated with non small cell cancer that were making it difficult to breathe and swallow. “I’m alive. I’m healthier than I’ve ever been,” says the 62-year old ex-smoker. Even better, a few other patients in the study have enjoyed what appears to be complete remission.

The epigenetics team includes geneticists, pathologists, biostatisticians, biochemists, informaticists, oncologists, surgeons, nurses and technicians, among others. “We’ve brought discovery researchers a lot closer to the clinical process: it’s an unbelievable asset,” says Dr. William Nelson, director of the Sidney Kimmel Comprehensive Cancer Center at of Johns Hopkins and a vice chairman of SU2C’s scientific committee. The success of such dream teams is prompting an important restructuring at MD Anderson, another top cancer center. President Dr. Ronald DePinho is adapting the team approach around what the institution calls its Moon Shot program. DePinho is assembling six multidisciplinary groups to “mount comprehensive attacks” on eight cancers, including lung, prostate, melanoma, and several women’s cancers that share genetic mutations. As in the SU2C effort, teams will be judged by patient outcomes, not by the number of research papers published. “Aspiring is not enough,” he says. “You must achieve.”

And given that 1.7 million people will be diagnosed with cancer this year, achievement has never been more in demand.

MORE: On the Horizon at Last, Cancer Drugs that Harness the Body’s Own Immune System