Crowdsourcing cancer{177}

“Race for the Cure” “Until We Find a Cure” The disease is so ubiquitous, no one one even bothers to name it anymore. When I was younger, I believed there might be a cure. At one point, I even believed I might discover the cure.

But that was before I came to appreciate that it was not one disease in need of a cure, but hundreds, or taken to the extreme point of view, that every incidence was as unique as a snowflake, at least from a genetic point of view. That was before this disease reached its current incidence of affecting 1-in-3 women and 1-in-2 men. I believed in a cure before cancer killed my father. After that, I believed that the problem of cancer was too big, too complex for anyone to cure.

Ten years later, I still hold to that belief. The more I learn about cancer biology, the more daunting the problem becomes. But recently, especially as I view cancer biology through the eyes of my students, I have hope. Cancer may be too big a problem for any ONE person to solve. Indeed cancer has proven too much for a host of scientists and clinicians spending millions upon millions of dollars in research. But what if we opened up the problem of cancer to EVERYBODY who wanted to contribute? For a number of unrelated and somewhat anecdotal reasons, I am hopeful this strategy might work:

1. Jack Andraka – Several of my students have been blogging about Jack Andraka. Caitlyn’s post is the most recent. Jack is a 15-year-old who has developed a rapid, sensitive and super-cheap (3 cents!) early detection test for pancreatic cancer. Jack was inspired when he lost a close family friend to this disease. He conducted his research on the Internet, initially with simple Google searches. And after contacting 200 ‘real’ scientists, he found one, a professor at Johns Hopkins, who let Jack into his lab to test his ideas. How many other Jack Andraka’s might be out there?

2. Foldit – The Foldit story is well known now. To whom does science turn  to solve the protein folding problems that elude the world’s leading structural biologists? To gamers, of course. Scientists had been unable to solve the structure of the HIV protease, a key target for AIDS prevention and treatment, for decades. Players of Foldit, a free Internet game, discovered the protease structure in just three months.

3. Naked mole rats – Naked mole rats never get cancer. Never ever. Their near relative, the garden variety rat, has a 70% lifetime incidence of cancer if something else doesn’t kill it first. The National Cancer Institute doles out the majority of its funding to support research on just a handful or so of ‘model organisms’ for cancer. Rats, mice, fruit flies, brewer’s yeast. While these organisms span quite a phylogenetic range, they do not begin to represent the diversity of species that might offer insight into this disease. Bolker and Raff made this point  eloquently years ago (Bolker and Raff, 1997, J. NIH Res. 9:35-39) as a backlash to a bold assertion that zebrafish need be the only model organism for vertebrate development. What are we missing by not investigating cancer, or the lack thereof, in as many organisms as possible?

I suspect that many scientists would argue that there just aren’t enough of us to go around. We can’t study everything.  I get it. As a developmental cell biologist, I spent well over a decade investigating the first five hours of life in a single species of frog. So what if we deputized a few thousand – maybe a few million – other people to help us out? So what if they don’t have PhDs? Jack Andraka doesn’t have a PhD. I’m not even sure he can drive a car yet.

What if cancer, which is already everybody’s problem, became everybody’s problem to solve? What if in addition to asking everyone to open their hearts and their wallets, we asked them to open their minds? What if?