Biophotonics: Photonics is key for Cancer Moonshot

The goal of the Cancer Moonshot Task Force is to double the rate of progress in cancer research and treatment.

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As part of the last State of the Union address of his presidency (on June 29, 2016), Barack Obama asked Vice President Joe Biden to lead a national effort to "end cancer as we know it." Focusing on the next five years, the goal of the Cancer Moonshot Task Force is to double the rate of progress in cancer research and treatment.

That same day, the National Photonics Initiative (NPI)—an alliance of leading scientific societies uniting industry and academia—released a white paper and roadmap highlighting key existing and upcoming technologies important for achieving this goal. Attending Biden's Cancer Moonshot Summit in Washington, DC, was NPI Cancer Moonshot Task Force chair (and executive director of Stanford University's Photonics Research Center) Tom Baer, who said that curing cancer "will take public-private partnerships and coordinated investments that will accelerate the prevention, diagnosis, and treatment of the disease."

To that end, the NPI had already begun organizing thought leaders from such organizations as the Lung Cancer Alliance, Prevent Cancer Foundation, Siemens, the Advanced Medical Technology Association (AdvaMed), the Medical Imaging and Technology Alliance (MITA), The Optical Society (OSA), the International Society for Optics and Photonics (SPIE), MD Anderson Cancer Center, Stanford University, Rush University Medical Center, University of Texas Health Science Center, University of Chicago, and Rice University.

Along with expanded funding for clinical studies over the next five years, this consortium recommends using existing noninvasive and minimally invasive imaging technologies, in concert with companion molecular tests, for early cancer detection. In addition, it asks for coordinated public and private investments to facilitate development of noninvasive quantitative imaging methods for both detection and treatment. And, it recommends resources to create a network for development of an information technology (IT) medical infrastructure for both healthcare providers and consumers.

Outline of a brighter future

The NPI's white paper and roadmap, titled "A Brighter Future: Achieving the Goals of the Cancer Moonshot through Adoption of New and Enhanced Technologies and a Transformed IT Health System," details a commitment—made jointly by the scientific community, medical technology industry, more than 350 hospitals, and major patient advocacy groups—to apply more than $3 billion yearly in private investments to technology for early detection of the most aggressive cancers.

The publication breaks down cancer management into six stages (see figure), and describes technologies able to make important contributions at every level. Some of these areas have been mainstays in bio-optics and -photonics, but the technologies have potential even for areas such as lifestyle and environment. Specifically, the document reports new optical methods for assessing risk among smokers and predicting malignancy, and for monitoring common cancer-causing chemicals inside buildings. And, it describes inexpensive wrist-worn sun-exposure monitoring.

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While a healthy lifestyle can help prevent cancer, the range of medical detection and treatment approaches (many of them photonics-based) already available and being developed are crucial to cancer detection and treatment. (Courtesy of the National Photonics Initiative)

One of the six case studies in the NPI publication details the vast improvement optical methods offer for measurement of drug response and monitoring for early detection of disease recurrence. Another describes affordable, integrated, point-of-care imaging tools to improve efficacy and lower the cost of cancer detection and treatment in resource-limited settings.

On June 30, 2016, Baer led a webcast discussion of the roadmap and its anticipated impact. Speakers included such stakeholders as Lauren Leiman and Jerry S. H. Lee, Office of the Vice President; Carolyn (Bo) Aldigé, Prevent Cancer Foundation; Shandi Barney, Advanced Medical Technology Association (AdvaMed); Jim Mulshine, Rush University; and Joelle Fathi, Swedish Cancer Institute. A recording of the webcast is available at

Building on a successful foundation

Optics and photonics already play a key role in healthcare technology, both in enhancing our ability to observe and measure symptoms, as well as our capability to treat patients earlier, less invasively, and more cost-effectively. Photonics-based healthcare tools offer sensitivity, precision, speed, and accuracy that enable rapid, personalized diagnosis and effective therapy. "Advancements in optics and photonics technologies…are essential for ushering in these next-generation tools for medicine and healthcare that will benefit patients across the spectrum of cancer management," says Alan Willner, chair of the NPI Steering Committee.

"If you plan to launch a pioneering collaboration aimed at breaking down a barrier that is impeding progress in cancer research, prevention, diagnosis, treatment, or care, I'd like to hear about it," Biden stated—and a link on the Moonshot website lets innovators communicate such plans.

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