“Getting Cancer Wrong" is, at first glance, a scary headline. It appears atop the online version of Newsweek's March 28 cover story focusing on an admittedly little understood cluster of math gurus housed at Moffitt Cancer Center in Tampa.
They are a rare bunch in cancer research. A bit like medical Moneyball guys who use mathematical models to find fresh ways to treat one of the toughest diseases.
"Think of them as Big Bang Theory meets hurricane spaghetti models," says Moffitt spokeswoman Patty Kim.
These numbers wizards in Moffitt's Integrated Mathematical Oncology Department are charged in their own way with fighting cancer no less intensely than the most dedicated doctors of surgery, radiology or chemotherapy. Moffitt's math guys, led since 2008 by Dr. Robert A. Gatenby and Dr. Sandy Anderson, see the cancer war differently. As Newsweek says:
"The mathematicians … are convinced we do not really understand cancer and that, until we do, our finest efforts will be tantamount to swinging swords in utter darkness. As far as these Tampa iconoclasts are concerned, your average cancer doctor is trying to build a jetliner without having grasped aerodynamics: Say, how many wings should we slap on this thing?"
Why bring up the notion that the war on cancer is so poorly understood following a story in Monday's Tampa Bay Times celebrating the FDA's approval of a drug combo that extends the survival of folks suffering from skin cancer?
Because the Newsweek article assesses the cancer fight honestly in three ways. It notes that cancer "victories" these days typically mean incremental success in giving patients a few more weeks or months of life. It describes modern-day cancer research as too often bureaucratic and risk averse. And it suggests that using mathematical models to treat individual cancers may help reignite the nationally declared "war on cancer." That war officially began in 1971, the year Patton won the best picture Oscar.
Moffitt's Integrated Mathematical Oncology Department is the only one of its kind. Other big cancer centers, such as Memorial Sloan Kettering or Dana-Farber, may have a few theoreticians; Moffitt has a five-person math group. Anderson credits Gatenby and Bill Dalton, Moffitt chief at the time, for having the vision to back his math team.
Moffitt is delighted, to say the least, to have landed on a Newsweek cover, coming shortly after the once-all-digital magazine again began publishing on paper. "It's a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity," Moffitt's Kim says of the attention generated by the cover story.
But it is also a sobering recognition of cancer's challenge.
Writes Newsweek of Gatenby: "After 30 years, he has come to the uneasy conclusion that cancer is smarter than we are, and will find ways to evade our finest medical weaponry."
That's why broadening the attack on cancer using advanced math may yield as-yet-unimagined treatments. And longer lives.
Robert Trigaux can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.