AACR President Frank McCormick, PhD, Reflects on Past Progress and Looks to the Future

Lynne Lederman, PhD
Published: Monday, May 06, 2013
Frank McCormick

Frank McCormick, PhD

The American Association for Cancer Research (AACR) advocates that research is the best defense against cancer. In its 2012 Cancer Progress Report, the AACR outlines important advances in cancer research, as well as the challenges the AACR is facing regarding funding. We had an interesting conversation with this year’s president, Frank McCormick, PhD, president and director of the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF) Helen Diller Family Comprehensive Cancer Center, and gained some insight into the coming year regarding what’s the next big area of interest in cancer research, and what the future holds for cancer research progress.

McCormick notes that one of the strategic priorities of the AACR is to expand its presence in the grass roots community, to increase awareness not only about the issues related to funding for cancer research, but also to include things people can do in terms of prevention, such as avoiding tobacco use and maintaining a healthy diet. Awareness, he advises, is to a greater extent legislative and involves policy issues, which most researchers can’t influence as effectively as they would like.

In addition to educational material for the public about cancer prevention, diagnosis, and treatment interspersed with stories from cancer survivors, the Cancer Progress Report also includes discussions of some of the important recent advances in the development of targeted therapies, anti-hormone therapies, immunotherapies, patient stratification, and genomic medicine.

Funding Concerns, Advocacy, and Research Advances

According to McCormick, one of the many challenges involved with cancer research is financial. The impact of the impending automatic spending cuts or “sequestration” proposed to occur in early 2013 would result in an approximate $400 million decrease in funding for the National Cancer Institute. First-time investigators just getting started would be severely hit hard by this slash in cuts, impeding significant future innovation.

Moreover, the impact of sequestration on the National Institutes of Health would reduce funding by approximately $2.52 billion, resulting in about 2300 fewer grants receiving awards in the fiscal year 2013. According to McCormick, “This would be a disaster and is something that is of major concern to the whole community, not just because of all the careers of people who will be affected, but also the fact that this is a moment in the history of cancer research when we are really getting a good bead on how complicated things are and how many opportunities there are to make progress.”

Sequestration would also severely affect the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Food and Drug Administration, the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality, and the National Science Foundation.

What’s Hot for 2013?

McCormick identified three of the hottest areas of interest in cancer research for 2013:
  • Precision medicine
  • Immunotherapy
  • Epigenetics

Precision Medicine

McCormick prefers the term precision medicine to personalized medicine. The objection to personalized medicine is that physicians feel they have always practiced personalized medicine. Precision medicine captures the precision of new technologies. “We are all talking about same thing,” says McCormick, “that is, identifying who is likely to benefit from specific drugs and who should be excluded, and tailoring drugs to individual patients.” A good example of this would be non-small cell lung cancer, which has had a very poor prognosis. Today, several subtypes of the disease have been identified that respond fairly well to targeted therapies. Therefore, physicians are obliged to run companion diagnostics to determine if patients have mutations in EGFR, translocations in ALK, or mutations in KRAS to identify the appropriate therapy.

McCormick believes that sooner or later it will be faster and cheaper to sequence the whole genome and make decisions based on that rather than by using dozens of tests. He anticipates that every large medical center will one day be able to sequence every gene in every tumor, and notes that the FDA is aware that this is on the horizon. In the era of the $1000 genome, this would yield 105 times the information obtained from one gene mutation test, and at a much lower cost.

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