Military medical researchers continue to forge ahead on innovative cancer research
WHen Vice President Joe Biden announced his vision for a “Cancer Moonshot” in the United States earlier this year, it served as a rallying cry for scientists and researchers across the federal government, private sector and academia. But within the Military Health System, there is already a longstanding commitment to science studying the causes, prevention, diagnosis and treatment of cancer.
At a recent “Review and Analysis” meeting facilitated by the Research, Development, & Acquisition directorate within the Defense Health Agency, military medical researchers came together to share the scope of their work as well as update colleagues on their recent successes and challenges for the future. Representatives from a variety of cancer research programs within the Congressionally Directed Medical Research Programs (CDMRP), Murtha Cancer Center at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, and Cancer Centers of Excellence presented findings on the unique difficulties that the diseases poses for both doctors and patients.
The meeting’s insights spanned the entire continuum of care, from prevention to diagnosis on to treatment and recovery. Researchers highlighted how they have found increasing success in identifying numerous “biomarkers,” that can indicate potential cancer risks or even the presence of cancer within an individual.
Scientists and doctors are also exploring ways to use knowledge gained elsewhere in military medical research to their benefit: techniques and clinical practices that were originally developed for the treatment of traumatic brain injury (TBI) are being studied for the potential they may have to help treat conditions like “chemo brain,” a debilitating side effect of chemotherapy that can lead to cognitive impairment in patients.
Researchers noted how their work fits into the larger context of military medicine and efforts to fight cancer across the nation. They stressed that cancer research is influenced by the emerging focus on “precision medicine,” a patient-centric approach that emphasizes genetic analysis to identify health risks and optimal treatment strategies for each individual. The Breast Cancer Center of Excellence’s research program, for example, has collected one of the world’s largest repositories of biological specimens related to cancer, and has been one of the most prolific contributors of sample tumors to the National Institutes of Health (NIH)’s Cancer Genome Atlas.
“The breadth and depth of the Military Health System’s investment in studying cancer can’t be overstated,” says Dr. Kelley Brix of the RDA directorate, who helped organize the meeting. “There’s still a lot that we need to learn about how to treat the disease, but the findings shared at this meeting show that we’ve made great progress, and that the MHS is already a leader in working toward the goals outlined by the Cancer Moonshot program.”
The commitment to cancer research is just one element of the MHS’ larger drive to provide cutting-edge, comprehensive care to Service members and beneficiaries. But it’s also an important effort for ensuring military medical readiness. More than 1,000 active duty Service members die from complications related to cancer each year. Thousands more receive cancer diagnoses that can prevent them from performing their duties for significant amounts of time. And Service members’ deployments to diverse environments around the world mean they face exposure to risk factors that civilians do not, making focused research essential.
New challenges in military medicine are appearing every day, but expanding our knowledge of cancer prevention, treatment and rehabilitation will continue to be a priority for the Military Health System as researchers continue to build on achievements that have already been made.
For more information on DoD-funded programs on cancer research, please visit the CDMRP website.