The Eagle that landed at Tranquility Base 40 years ago (July 20, 1969) took only four days to reach the Moon. Yet the flight that allowed Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins to inspire a generation was the culmination of a journey that began almost a decade earlier. As we celebrate these three pioneers of human endeavour, we should not forget a fourth man who never learned of their achievements, yet without whom Apollo 11 might never have flown. For it was John F. Kennedy who on May 25, 1961, set humanity’s most ambitious voyage of discovery in motion.
Alarmed by Yuri Gagarin’s launch into orbit a month before, President Kennedy challenged American science to do better. “I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before the decade is out, of landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to Earth,” he said. The attainment of so bold an objective demonstrates how unwise it is to underestimate the capacity of human ingenuity. Science, given wholehearted support, can rise to the most extraordinary of challenges.
Top-down grands projets in the Apollo mould are not fashionable in modern science: wise governments rightly follow the principle that scientists, not politicians, should set the direction of research. Yet as the Moon shot showed, political will can also contribute to the realisation of humanity’s great goals. What, then, might a latter-day Kennedy profitably aspire to help science to achieve by the time the next decade is out?
This weekend’s space walks lack boldness,while the prospects of sending men to Mars, is too remote for 2020. A more surprising possibility, however, may well be within reach. The prospect of transforming the treatment of cancer.The notion of a cure for cancer has drawn proper scepticism since President Nixon declared war on the disease in 1971. As understanding of cancer has deepened, however, a more realistic goal has come into focus. We may soon come to see this dread disease largely as a manageable and chronic condition. Within ten years or so, many scientists believe it could become more usual to die with cancer than of it.
This optimism is founded on the increasing ease with which the human genome can be interrogated. Cancer is a disease of the genes, caused by accumulating mutations that make cells grow out of control. If the precise mutations that drive a patient’s tumour can be identified, it should be possible to target them with genetically tailored drugs. This approach has already transformed therapy of chronic myeloid leukaemia, and it should soon be applicable to many more cancers. Genetic technology will also improve screening: a patient whose DNA profile suggests a high risk of breast cancer, for example, could start having mammograms at an earlier age.
This research is already farther advanced than was manned spaceflight when Kennedy launched Apollo: in 1961, no American had yet entered orbit. Like Apollo, though, its progress will depend as much on political support as science. This future for cancer will not only require investment in research. It will also require healthcare systems to invest in new infrastructure and training, to provide the sequencing facilities and skills that every hospital will need.
“We choose to go to the Moon in this decade,” Kennedy said, “because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win.” It is a sentiment worth repeating for cancer. There will never be a cure for cancer: cancer is not, in any case, a single disease. But the challenge of controlling many of its manifestations is one that the world could and should take on.
The Times of London, editorial.