Analytical models hint at successful ‘moonshot’ aimed at curing cancer

May 3, 2016

Presidents Kennedy and Nixon called, respectively, for landing a man on the moon and eradicating cancer. The former effort succeeded, the latter did not. Nevertheless, Vice President Biden has called for a “moonshot” effort to cure the disease, with private and public funding. Could an initiative launched now be any more successful than the one began with the passage of the National Cancer Act of 1971?

Fred Ledley, director of the Center for Integration of Science and Industry at Bentley University, believes it could. “While the investments in cancer research in the 1970s did not conquer the disease as the public had hoped, they did revolutionize our understanding of cancer,” he writes at WBUR Cognoscenti.

His center uses analytical models of technology maturation patterns to study relationships between basic science advances and the emergence of industrial applications. “Our work is based on something that engineers have known for years: Products developed from immature technologies—whether rocket engines, new materials, or new machines—have a high failure rate and commonly fall short on performance metrics,” he writes. “Only as technologies mature and achieve requisite levels of ‘readiness’ do they predictably generate successful products.”

He adds, “Our analysis suggests the same pattern is evident in bio-pharmaceutical development, and that the failure to develop successful anticancer drugs in the decades following passage of the National Cancer Act primarily reflected the immaturity of the underlying technologies at the time.”

He writes that by the time Kennedy called for the moon landing, Atlas and Titan rockets had successfully completed more than 120 test flights, and Saturn rockets were in development.

“Our research suggests that cancer research may now be at a similar stage,” he writes. “Analytical models suggest that many of the discoveries and technologies that are essential components of cancer therapies have now matured to the point that they may predictably generate successful products.”

The center, founded in 2013 with a $1.3 million grant from the National Biomedical Research Foundation (NBRF), announced on February 19 that it has been was awarded renewed funding from the NBRF, amounting to $2.3 million over the next five years to further its focus on translating scientific discoveries into public value.

At the time, Ledley summarized the center’s work as “maximizing the public value of scientific discoveries, not only by helping entrepreneurs build successful companies, but also by helping deliver the innovative products that the public needs, such as improved therapies for disease and sustainable sources of energy.”

He added, “Data analytics is a real strength of Bentley University and a powerful way to look at the dynamics between science, business, and medicine. We are now able to examine hundreds of thousands of published scientific papers and patents to better understand how technologies mature and create value.”

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