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NCI

First Virtual WALS Lecture

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NIH Lecture-Remote with Dr. James Allison
With sponsored travel and large gatherings now limited to stop the spread of COVID-19, NIH has been making lots of logistical adjustments. That includes holding the first “virtual” NIH Director’s Wednesday Afternoon Lecture Series (WALS) on March 11, 2020. I started things off from Bethesda, Maryland by looking into a video monitor in a large, mostly empty conference room and introducing Jim Allison, the cancer immunotherapy giant and recent Nobelist at the University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center. In Houston, Jim walked to the podium in a mostly empty hall (top left), called for his slides, and delivered a roughly 45-minute presentation titled Immune Checkpoint Blockade in Cancer Therapy: Historical Perspective, New Opportunities, and Prospects for Cures. Taking it all in online was a large NIH audience that included next to me another cancer immunotherapy giant, Steve Rosenberg of NIH’s National Cancer Institute (bottom right). At the conclusion of the presentation, NIH staff emailed questions to the podium in Houston, where Jim provided the answers. Still left to be worked out in this virtual format is how to share afterwards in the real-world coffee, refreshments, and stimulating conversation. Credit: NIH

Crowdsourcing Key Cancer Questions

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Young scientists having a discussion in a laboratory setting

Credit: National Cancer Institute, Rhoda Baer (Photographer)

How does aspirin protect against cancer? How does obesity increase the risk of cancer? What genetic, epigenetic, biologic, behavioral, or environmental factors enable some people with highly lethal cancers to survive beyond expectation?

These are just a few perplexing issues that were chosen as part of the Provocative Questions Initiative of the National Cancer Institute (NCI), one of the 27 Institutes and Centers that make up the NIH [1]. The initiative was launched to identify questions or problems about cancer that, for whatever reason, have been neglected in the past. The hope was that by crowdsourcing across the entire research community, the most important questions would be identified — potentially yielding game-changing advances in preventing, diagnosing, and treating all forms of cancer.

Although cancer rates are declining about 1% per year [2], cancer is the second leading cause of death in the United States, surpassed only by heart disease. In 2009, 567,614 people died from some form of cancer—1,555 people every day. We’ve been waging war on this disease for decades now. But we now have the tools to address many more questions.