Last week, I attended the Japanese Society of Clinical Oncology (JSCO) meeting in Yokohama. JSCO rotates the Congress President position among the Japanese universities, and this was the year for Seiichi Takenoshita, who is Chairman of the Department of Organ Regulatory Surgery at the Fukushima Medical University. It is now three years after the disastrous Fukushima earthquake and subsequent tsunami that destroyed the nuclear power plant and dislocated victims from their ancestral home. For the Japanese oncology community, this JSCO was an opportunity to consider lessons both learned and to be learned along their path towards healing and recovery.
Because of these special circumstances, speakers less typical for an oncology meeting were included. Two representatives from the Dutch Anne Frank House were invited because of the activities of their foundation in the promotion of healing after traumatic experiences. Although the Fukushima earthquake was a natural disaster not predicated upon human prejudice, the organizers felt that the value of open communication and sharing within a society are lessons to be learned that benefit recovery. Yet, is not Fukushima also a metaphor for cancer survivorship? The experiences of individuals and families after cancer and the readjustment of values and thinking that follows a personal or societal catastrophic event are global human life experiences.
The undercurrent of Fukushima was also evident in several of the educational sessions, which described radiation damage to normal tissues, from both iatrogenic and nonmedical radiation exposure. The joint ASCO-JSCO session was dedicated to biologic models of radiation damage, and several months ago, while planning the ASCO contribution to this session, I recalled one of the first ASCO Annual Meetings I attended while still an oncology fellow. That year, in the exhibit hall, was a mock-up of Spacelab, a forerunner of the International Space Station, complete with a couple of NASA astronauts (in civilian clothes, I might add). Was NASA recruiting for astronaut oncologists? Was the always forward-thinking ASCO Board of Directors contemplating space as the final membership frontier? The real answer was equally intriguing. NASA was planning for deep-space missions, missions that would entail space travel of several years duration, during which, humans would be subjected to low-dose, but continuous, solar radiation without the protection of an atmosphere. Hence, the interest in risk assessment and mitigation for humans exposed to environmental radiation and the desire of NASA to learn from cancer research.
Recalling that early ASCO experience led me to track down Tore Straume, of NASA’s Ames Research Center Bioscience Research Branch. This NASA center studies the biologic effects of deep space travel, such as a mission to Mars, which would require two years to complete. Insights into this question will be explored in a novel one-year International Space Station observational study of NASA astronaut Scott Kelly, whose biosamples will be compared to those of his identical twin, retired astronaut Mark Kelly, who will remain on Earth. A key goal is to study molecular biomarkers, and serial samples will be obtained from both twins during the course of the mission, which begins in March 2015.
In his presidential speech, ASCO President Cliff Hudis called for increased federal financing of scientific research, citing the decline in real dollars of federally financed research since the 1960s, spurred at that time by the space program and the perceived threat to our nation’s security and well being if America did not have a strong foundation in science and mathematics. Time and again we have seen how federally funded research in one area and for one purpose has yielded unanticipated benefits that have transformed society. Witness the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) and development of the Internet. During the JSCO meeting, I sat down with Tore and asked him about another of his contributions. In the 1980s, while at the Biomedical Science Division at the Department of Energy funded Lawrence Livermore National Lab, Tore—along with Joe Gray and Dan Pinkel—developed fluorescence in situ hybridization (FISH) technology to study DNA for evidence of radiation damage and to allow early detection of molecular markers of disease such as chronic myelogenous leukemia.
Where the next great idea will come from is never obvious, but if we do not fund discovery and the subsequent innovation that make progress possible, we will find ourselves at a standstill. Whether the final frontier lies in studying the human condition, deep space, or oncology, the human mind is led to exploration, illumination and innovation in the quest for a better life.