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I am clever and ambitious. I want to try to cure cancer. Where do I start?
23 points by frendiversity on Apr 29, 2012 | hide | past | web | favorite | 12 comments
"Where do I start?" is somewhat rhetorical. A major issue is that I feel my ambition would be quickly stunted by the lengthy and difficult decade-long process to get the point where I could start tinkering around with the problem, at which point I may no longer be naive enough to have the confidence to try.

I often wonder if making something like "curing cancer" (I know it isn't as simple as that) a concrete, immediate puzzle could be more effective. Kids on the internet often successfully crack security and protections professionally developed by skilled veterans- simply for the sake of anonymous notoriety- perhaps because the puzzle is immediately there for them to try to solve.

Perhaps we would focus this application of ambition to more productive problems if they were public and global, instead of sheltered behind thick, opaque layers of academic and corporate organizations.

I'm aware that there is a massive amount of training and preexisting knowledge required in tackling this sort of task- but I also can't help wondering how many minds lose their ambition or confidence going through this training and competition, eventually being frustrated or losing sight of the goal.

Nevertheless, I'd like to hear your ideas on where to start.




Get on a plane and visit everyone doing the most important cutting edge work in cancer. In person. People love to share their work with an enthusiastic listener.

Publish a blog to keep track of all the great things that are happening. With a few hundred hours of effort, you'll be one of the experts on the upcoming roadmap towards cures for cancers. People will start coming to you for advice. Let all the VCs in the field know that you're available to help with due diligence.

Somewhere along the line, while you are following the above plan, you will just know what you need to do. You will know the maximum leverage activity that you can contribute towards curing cancer.

And follow the plan above even if you are an introvert. You will see that it's not too hard. Sure you will have those frozen moments of doubt as you ride the elevator to meet an esteemed researcher at MIT. But the minute you walk in the room, and he starts telling you about his work, you will be fine.


I am going to try this.


I am always puzzled when people rail against the long process of getting a PhD, as if this is a symptom of the lumbering university system. I consider the PhD a maker's schedule for the big problems. There are two types of complexity that you need to get your head around when trying to cure cancer - first the complexity of the biological system, and secondly the complexity of the previous knowledge. The first is well appreciated. The second, however, is frequently under-appreciated, and represents a sort of technical debt. The peer review process is not perfect, and so there's a lot of dodgy knowledge out there that will send you off in the wrong direction. Understanding the subtleties of the previous knowledge requires both knowledge of the current system, and a deep understanding of the previous methodologies.

It's not easy. It is however, possible to do. You just need to spend a few years (3 in the case of my PhD) getting your head into the position where it contains all this information, after which you can start tackling the problems at hand. It would be lovely to have cancer research presented as a set of relatively simple decision points that many eyes can look over, and after waiting an appropriate amount of time, a solution will be provided. In my experience, discovery only happens after thinking really, really, really hard.

I guess my main point is that there's no efficient way to scale up the number of breakthroughs we get. It really comes down to having the right people look at the right problems. It's a numbers game, and if there's a feeling that not enough people are sticking with the field because they're being frustrated, then we'd be better off making scientists less frustrated. The complexity of the systems ain't going nowhere.


The bottom line: go to school.

I'm well aware of the drawbacks of academic science. I'm aware that some of the best progress happens outside of academia. It's not about that; it's about resources.

I've been doing some consulting for a company that's working on improving medical diagnosis (among other things.) I'm trying to build risk models for diseases based on genetic data. The problem is that this data isn't freely available. "Open" access data is usually only "open" in the sense that you can apply for access, and you usually have to be a biology professor to be considered. It's not like the tech world at all. We're used to open source. They're not.

If you want to do science, you need access to resources. You need a lab, or you need experimental data. It's really hard to do that outside of academia. Heck, it's hard to read journal articles outside of academia.

Going to school, for all its hassles, is essentially free access to resources. You don't have to be narrowly academia-minded to get an education -- I'm getting a math PhD, but I'm philosophically closer to the tech industry and I don't plan to work in academia. Grad school isn't a tribal identity, it's an opportunity to get what you value out of it.


So, a PhD is like an MD without the fieldwork. And a PhD is like this: http://matt.might.net/articles/phd-school-in-pictures/

What that myopic, institutionally-granted dent in the universe gives you is the ability to write grants and manage student researchers for a living, but it's not necessarily going to help you solve cancer.

And let's say you go into the private sector as a bioinformaticist, that might get you somewhere, except private industry has nothing to gain from cures. A cured patient is a lost customer. The money is in abatement of symptoms and suffering for a monthly fee, and so that's what industry optimizes for.

What you, as an outsider, have, that people already there don't have, is the ability to cross disciplines. (Yes, ability. Talk to a PhD sometime. Most can't see outside their self-constructed walls until they've been out of academia for a few years, and they'll always have biases.) Academia doesn't like this, since it threatens each discipline's carefully drawn territorial boundaries. But you can do research like this: http://radar.oreilly.com/2012/03/data-science-deep-data-info...

Scroll down to the "Deep data" header and read that part in particular. There's a potential link between something and migraines, that's pretty much unexplored. Why? Because to advance in academia, your focus must be incredibly narrow. It is completely possible and likely that everyone everywhere has just missed it, because it's not some hugely popular or obvious micro-subject within the discipline. As an outsider, you can explore across different problem domains and different branches of medicine and potentially determine unexplored research avenues.

Gentlemen scientists and inventors of yore discovered new things regularly partially because there was plenty of low-hanging fruit to be discovered, but also because the big-S definitions of Science hadn't been codified yet, so they could pull from what would now be different disciplines without anyone rapping their knuckles with a ruler: http://interconnected.org/home/2011/03/17/finding_baby_scien...

Curing cancer -- which, while a multitude of diseases, comes down to magically identifying misbehaving cells and killing them -- isn't small-S citizen or gentleman science. It's royal, big-S science.

But, maybe the way you get there doesn't have to be.


I recently wrote on the subject. Have a read:

How Can Hackers Help In The Fight Against Cancer? - http://www.nilkanth.com/2012/04/18/how-can-hackers-help-in-t...


You might start by reading this:

http://www.amazon.com/The-Emperor-All-Maladies-Biography/dp/...

.. there isn't one thing called "cancer", there are at least thousands of different varieties that have different genetic profiles, different behavior and risk factors, etc.

The thick, opaque layers represent actual human learning and experience and judgment, and you can't just skip over them because it seems more fun to jump right to the high-profile heroic stuff. You can't do the good stuff without learning the rest.

(*Ok, once in awhile people come up with breakthroughs in fields they know nothing about - and once in awhile a monkey will accidentally type something intelligible, given a typewriter. We still don't issue typewriters to monkeys when we need to get some writing done, even if it would work from time to time.)


Some good suggestions here.

I've considered this issue a lot. Having lost many friends and family members to cancers of various types, and counting cancer survivors among my friends and acquaintances, I am very keenly interested in curing cancer.

Right now, being so deeply invested in my own business, I would wish there were things I could do to simply fund cancer research. But nothing is simple, and there are a lot of problems with cancer research funding: http://www.nytimes.com/2009/06/28/health/research/28cancer.h... The comment on that piece that most struck me was from the breast cancer survivor who eagerly participated in a research study, given that she knew which carcinogens she'd been exposed to in her lifetime, but found that she was asked useless questions using research money that could've been well-used elsewhere. #28 on this page: http://community.nytimes.com/comments/www.nytimes.com/2009/0...

You will quickly find when you research cancer that acquiring a decade's worth of specialized knowledge isn't going to get you to your goal. It's much better to have a working knowledge of statistics and the ability to read medical papers, something you can do with far less than a MD or PhD.


My suggestion: get an access to databases of academic journals and try to read research papers. You probably won't understand most of it at first, but you should get an idea of the subject's terminology and main approaches.

I did that (no formal education, primary interest being in computational linguistics, YMMV) and found reading original papers a compelling and effective way of learning.


Start by deciding what you want to cure. "Cancer" really is a colloquially term for what is actually thousands of diseases.


Start by defining "cancer". Your ambition is about like announcing that you want to end communicable diseases (something antibiotics were touted as doing when they first came out). There are many kinds of cancer. There is no reason to believe they are all the same thing.

Then define "cure". I have CF. Everyone is begging for a "cure" for it. I don't think there is such thing because it happens to be a genetic disorder. So I think looking for a "cure" for CF is like looking for a cure for being Caucasion. However, I have figured out how to be healthy, which is supposedly impossible.

Best of luck.


start now. what's holding you back?

I was at a university surplus site today and saw lots of cheap equipment. I'm assuming you are in love with BioChem... so why not start setting up your own lab?

If you want to work on a problem, start working on it. you don't know what you don't know, so follow your interests and your intuition to broaden your understanding and keep pushing your boundaries. Ask yourself a clear question and go about answering it. That is the basis of science.

When people say cancer is Big-S science, that tells you more about the kinds of abstractions being used and questions being asked then about actually doing science. You can ask different questions.

And maybe you shouldn't think of university as a long blocking task, but rather as an opportunity to get access to great equipment to run experiments.




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