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Cancer research gadfly calls for a "Google of science"

You might think that Fortune magazine editor Clifton Leaf would be unwelcome in the mainstream cancer community after his highly critical 2004 cover story, "Why We're Losing the War on Cancer (and How to Win It)."

In that article, Leaf, senior editor-at-large and a cancer survivor, argued that cancer research progress is being oversold to the public, and is being slowed by wrong-headed funding policies by the federal government, insufficient focus on important issues like tumor metastasis, and inefficient clinical trial designs.

But in fact Leaf, who visited with Dana-Farber/Harvard Cancer Center (DF/HCC) leadership last week, has seen many within the field agree with his views. His gadfly observations have sparked serious debate among cancer researchers, policymakers and members of Congress. He has been asked to keynote several conferences, and recently began visiting cancer centers to discuss his ideas for radical reform of the research enterprise.

During his April 6 visit to DF/HCC, Leaf met with the group's leadership, which included Edward Benz Jr., MD, president of Dana-Farber, Joseph B. Martin, MD, PhD, dean of Harvard Medical School, the Executive Committee and the Center Scientific Council. In his discussions with these groups, Leaf said a number of barriers are slowing the progress in cancer, including insufficient honesty in evaluating the progress that's been made, failure to see cancer as a process and not simply as an event, and fragmentation of the many groups involved in delivering cancer care.

Open exchange necessary

Speaking at a public seminar that marked the first of a director's series of talks sponsored by DF/HCC, Leaf used economic market analogies when proposing a free and open exchange of cancer research data as a strategy to accelerate discovery. "The best information-exchange market in the world is Google," said Leaf, referring to the enormously successful search engine that searches thousands of Web pages for information and matches items to desired keywords in less than a second.

By contrast, epidemiologists who work to discover connections among environment, lifestyle, genetic and other factors that are associated with the risk of contracting a disease don't share data as readily, and finding a "smoking gun" can take many years, said Leaf. "Cancer epidemiology has suffered from a lack of links and cross links between data and the means to connect them," said Leaf. "Our current system of generating and testing hypotheses can never be efficient enough to solve the mysteries of cancer in a timely manner."

In place of the traditional system of having results reviewed by other scientists and then published in journals that may require subscriptions, Leaf advocated for a universally accessible research system "that truly works like Google." The proposed system would be constantly updated and corrected by users, similar to the free, online reference Wikipedia. Although some have criticized the latter for containing both deliberate misstatements and inadvertent errors, Leaf does not consider this a serious problem. "In the new world (of electronic information exchange), garbage in, garbage out no longer applies. The market will correct itself in time, and an efficiency of information will emerge."

Following his presentation, Leaf answered questions from the audience. In response to one question, he said he had no qualms about a system in which personal genetic information and medical history data were placed in an open database as long as it contained no clues to the person's identity. "I think we over blow the fear of having this information get out there," he said.

By Richard Saltus 
Photo by Sam Ogden