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Cancer Research: Are We Selling Hope or Delivering It?

AACR Visit with OffWhite Life Science Marketing

I’ve often told my students and our clients that we don’t sell perfume. That’s just selling hope.

But last week I had chance to watch hope being sold, delivered and devoured. On Sunday, April 19, 2015, the exhibit hall opened at the Annual Meeting of the American Association for Cancer Research at the Philadelphia Convention Center.

After a morning of walking the aisles, the intensity of this conference was revealed to me in an obscure corner of a food court above Reading Station where we escaped the exhibit floor to dine on overpriced salads and sip overpriced water. At the table next to us were two oncologists, oblivious to the lunch crowd, reviewing a case that had one puzzled and the other mesmerized. Before you call the HIPAA police, nothing about the patient was disclosed. And I really wasn’t eavesdropping. But here, in the middle of the day, two doctors from two different parts of the world were zeroed in on one patient with a rare form of cancer that demanded an audience.

These two physicians shared images as they threw ideas across the table. The only language I understood was their body language. They could have been having the same discussion in the middle of I-95 with the same focus and sense of purpose.

Today, back to their home bases, they are likely commiserating on the case that may lead to a better understanding of what might work just because they agreed on what wasn’t working.

The AACR meeting was an intersection of ideas, theories, peer reviewed outcomes and peer reviewed false starts. It was interplay of educated guesses, hunches and politics; after all, what is the chase for grant money without politics? It would be cynical to suggest these researchers work in a vacuum, more interested in science than money. There was enough entrepreneurial spirit in the exhibit hall to confirm that finding a cure for cancer would dish an economic tsunami from Wall Street around the world and back. Not all good. I will leave that cynicism for another time.

A sad byproduct of the AACR conference was meeting scientists who were presenting their last research, defending their work via a last poster session, slipping into the job fair and tucking their vanity and egos into a place that would permit them to do something . . . anything . . . to stay in the game.

For many generations the United States has led the way in government funding for primary research into cancer, a public policy boost that has given rise to hundreds of start-ups through commercialization or license agreements. Today, this funding is under enormous stress. Humanity prefers to burn down the farm and behead our hopes for the future. As always, it’s the war on cancer vs. the war on everything else. Guns and butter.

A quick look at the National Cancer Institute Fact Book reveals funding through NCI grants and research contracts leveling out and trending down over the last few years. There’s no need to perform an economic analysis of the interplay between federal funding and corporate or private equity investments in the pharma sector; it is clear that the entire equation, suitably driven by money, is undergoing changes that scientists doing basic research find hard to predict. As the weak look for jobs, the strong collect more post-docs to run their labs and the wheel goes round.

Supporting this ballet are the businesses that line the exhibit hall with new products and services that literally boggle the mind. Analytical instrumentation is more powerful than ever and the ability to see what has never been viewed on the molecular level puts another weapon into play. The war on cancer is being fought with statistics.

The public and private collaboration that steers equity capital and competitive efficiencies to and from brilliant scientists has become a core business model for some companies who find success through mutual benefit. In the spirit of the free-enterprise system, perhaps this is the perfume we need to wear, the perfume that leads us to hold hands.

There’s nothing more powerful than a scientist with a vision, the will to sacrifice for it, the strength to fight for it and the means to pursue it within an environment of open discourse among peers. With today’s light-speed communications, what happens at The James Cancer Research Center in Columbus in the afternoon can be the talk of the town in Singapore by daybreak.

The scientists are mostly anonymous, deep thinkers. But don’t let them fool you. They’re working hard, always talking, texting and creeping out of their own skin a few times a year to share ideas face-to-face over an overpriced salad, sipping overpriced water.

They also bring gifts, better than perfume. What I saw in Philadelphia was more than hope. I saw a fistfight for a fistful of dollars played out over research posters tacked to the wall with push pins and a Hail Mary. On the drive home I realized that I saw a cure for cancer in the making.

It’s on the way. I can smell it.

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