The fight against cancer is a global battle, where both faith and scientific communities must work collaboratively in care and prevention. That was the message Vice President Joe Biden delivered at the Vatican April 29 in a speech during a conference on regenerative medicine.
The speech comes more than two months after President Barack Obama announced a “moonshot” initiative to battle cancer at home — a robust $1 billion proposal to ramp up cancer therapies and collaborative research projects so ambitious its creators compare it to the Apollo space missions. The announcement was welcomed by Sharon Stack, the Ann F. Dunne and Elizabeth Riley Director of Notre Dame’s Harper Cancer Research Institute.
“The idea is phenomenal,” Stack said. “It’s important we all recognize research is expensive, and we could talk about it all we want, but we’re not going to get anywhere unless we put money into it.”
Nor will the global fight against cancer be successful without a comprehensive recognition of cancer’s contributing factors, Stack said. To that end, the faith and scientific communities can find common ground on cancer research within the context of “Laudato Si’,” the pope’s encyclical of June 2015 that urged action on climate change.
“The degradation of the environment certainly contributes to the rates of cancer. Developing countries are bearing the burden of that,” she said. “Industrial and agricultural waste is really contributing to the global cancer burden, and it’s disproportionately affecting those people in developing countries.”
The idea of collaboration to fight cancer is nothing new at Harper. As an example, Stack offers the work of Hsueh-Chia Chang, the Bayer Professor of Engineering and director of the Center for Microfluidics and Medical Diagnostics. Chang is working with Reginald Hill, assistant professor of biological sciences, on an early detection method for pancreatic cancer. According to Stack, detecting pancreatic cancer even several months earlier could make a dramatic difference in outcomes for the patient. Pairing an engineer and biologist to tackle one of the deadliest forms of cancer is the kind of innovative approach that was central to Harper’s founding.
“We’re trying to get researchers who perhaps don’t think about cancer research, but who have strong scientific methods and approaches, and let them know what our questions are,” Stack said.
Yet breakthroughs at Harper or globally won’t happen without funding, a point Biden emphasized in his Vatican speech, and a fact Stack said is borne from looking at breast cancer outcomes in the U.S. In the 1970s, the five-year survival rate for breast cancer was around 50 percent. Today, it’s approximately 90 percent. Stack is quick to point out vigilance is still required here at home to fight the disease, and within the global context, much work is yet to be done on breast and other forms of cancer.
“Things we call rare cancers in the United States are very prevalent elsewhere in the world,” Stack said. “Stomach cancer, for example, in some countries is one of the top five. Cervical cancer is rare in the U.S., but that’s the largest cancer killer worldwide.”
Framing cancer research in the global sense gives the Catholic community more than enough reason to join the fight, Stack said.
“The Church has an active audience, an engaged audience, and they have an audience that tends to become involved,” she said. “Certainly with Pope Francis taking the banner of speaking for those who can’t speak for themselves, I think there’s a great opportunity here if we can just get the right information out to the public.
“Because of Notre Dame’s focus on social justice and the poor and underserved, I think we as a University have the opportunity, and almost the moral obligation, to try to use our intellectual resources to try to make an impact in the area of cancer research.”