42-02 Obama Announces Moonshot to Cure Cancer

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This article is part of The Cancer Letter's To The Moon series.

From the official White House enhanced video of President Obama’s State of the Union address.

Obama Announces Moonshot to Cure Cancer

By Matthew Bin Han Ong

President Barack Obama announced a moonshot aimed at curing cancer, a project to be led by Vice President Joe Biden.

The United States can do “so much more,” Obama said in his seventh and final State of the Union address Jan. 12. “Last year, Vice President Biden said that with a new moonshot, America can cure cancer. Last month, he worked with this Congress to give scientists at the National Institutes of Health the strongest resources they’ve had over a decade.

“Tonight, I’m announcing a new national effort to get it done. And because he’s gone to the mat for all of us, on so many issues over the past 40 years, I’m putting Joe in charge of mission control. For the loved ones we’ve all lost, for the family we can still save—let’s make America the country that cures cancer once and for all.”

America now has three separate cancer moonshots:

A Moonshot to Cure Cancer: Obama and Biden plan to “increase resources—both private and public—to fight cancer,” as well as “break down silos and bring all the cancer fighters together—to work together, share information, and end cancer as we know it,” Biden wrote this week.

The Cancer MoonShot 2020 Program: Patrick Soon-Shiong, billionaire founder and CEO of NantWorks and the Chan Soon-Shiong Institute of Molecular Medicine, launched his own moonshot Jan. 11, the day before Obama’s State of the Union address. Soon-Shiong’s National Immunotherapy Coalition, which he claims is an “inclusive” effort involving many public-private partnerships, aims to “get to the path of the cure as fast as we can.”

MD Anderson Cancer Center’s Moon Shots Program: Launched in 2012, MD Anderson President Ronald DePinho aimed to “end cancer” and pledged to “kick cancer’s butt” by rapidly advancing progress in six cancer types.

“MD Anderson President Ronald DePinho has talked with Biden during the past year about cancer research, prevention and treatment, and the way forward to accelerate progress,” MD Anderson said in a statement to The Cancer Letter. “Our Moon Shots Program leaders also had an opportunity to meet with him, so the vice president is aware of our established program. Along with others in the field, we look forward to continuing to confer with Vice President Biden about the scope and potential of a national initiative.

“We certainly agree the time is ripe for concerted efforts to reduce deaths from cancer. Because Vice President Biden is so well respected, he’s an ideal leader to spark new collaborative efforts against these diseases.”

The metaphors of war and space travel aren’t new. Vows of this sort were a prominent part of political buildup that produced the National Cancer Act of 1971, and have resurfaced regularly since. However, America’s top-ranking scientists are saying that this era is different.

This time, two of the moonshots appear to have collided: one from the White House, and the other from Soon-Shiong, who declared that Biden and several key government officials support his program. NCI and FDA officials said the agencies aren’t involved.

Details of this cosmic collision emerge here.

Biden’s moonshot comes seven months after his son, Beau Biden, the attorney general of Delaware, died of brain cancer in May 2015 at the age of 46. In December of last year, the vice president helped secure a $264 million funding boost for NCI, the largest increase in over a decade of flat budgets and decreasing purchasing power.

Biden’s initiative arrives at an especially promising time in cancer research, NIH Director Francis Collins said during a press call Jan. 14.

“There’s strong interest in the vice president’s office, and I think rightly so, in bringing together academia, industry, philanthropy, and others and figuring out new kinds of partnerships and particularly assisting in data sharing, something that doesn’t always happen when it should, and building new partnerships between the public and private sector,” Collins said. “So the goal then, I think, now that Vice President Biden has accepted the charge to lead, is to pull those kinds of opportunities together—to get all the kinds of input that are needed. And he’s already met with more than 200 scientists; he’s on a very steep learning curve…

“Again, I think we need to be careful not to overpromise, but I think everyone who studies this issue would agree that we are at an especially promising time, and to have the vice president, given the charge by the president—this is moment to really pull out the stops. It is very energizing and exciting to all of us who have dreams about where this could go.”

The details of funding for Biden’s moonshot have not been disclosed, and it’s not publicly known how much money will be distributed.

“As you know, when the president makes the State of the Union address, and a couple weeks after that, that’s followed with the president’s budget,” Collins said. “In the meantime, it’s not possible to disclose what kind of content might be in there. But on Tuesday, Feb. 9, the president’s budget will be revealed, and I think that will be the point at which you would want to look closely and see what kind of resources are attached to this clearly very strong presidential and vice presidential priority.”

NCI Acting Director Doug Lowy cautioned that the moonshot should not be expected to cure cancer.

“The notion of a moonshot, which the vice president articulated, I think, should be seen as one of being aspirational, not business as usual, which would translate into much faster progress,” Lowy said during the press call. “The faster progress is not going to take care of the cancer problem in the next month, the next year, or even the next couple of years.

“But the opportunities that Francis mentions are enormous at this time and we really applaud the vice president for his commitment what we know will be equally as important, his follow through.”

The Obama-Biden Moonshot

The American Association for Cancer Research has put together a group of 15 of its members, led by AACR President José Baselga, several board members and other leaders from 10 of the top medical institutions in the U.S.

According to AACR, the group met with Biden’s senior staff Jan. 8 to discuss the state of cancer research.

“We have indeed reached an inflection point, where the number of discoveries that are being made at such an accelerated pace are saving lives and bringing enormous hope for cancer patients, even those with advanced disease,” said Baselga in a statement, who is also physician-in-chief and chief medical officer at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center.

“Now is the time for a major new initiative in cancer science that supports and builds upon our basic science foundation while translating these exciting scientific discoveries into improved treatments for cancer patients, such as in the areas of genomics, precision medicine, and immuno-oncology.”

The moonshot will reduce cancer-related human suffering and loss of life, the American Society of Clinical Oncology said.

“We must recommit to vastly speeding the discovery of new cancer treatments and enabling the possibility of precision medicine for every individual with cancer,” said ASCO Chief Medical Officer Richard Schilsky. “With the effective application of Big Data initiatives, such as ASCO’s CancerLinQ rapid-learning system, insights that have taken years to discern could happen much more quickly, helping us to better understand which treatments work best for each patient and the high impact areas where additional research is critically needed.”

The moonshot will help provide the funding needed to accelerate progress, said Ellen Sigal, chair and founder of Friends of Cancer Research.

“We have made incredible progress in fighting cancer already. Making many forms of it curable today,” Sigal said to The Cancer Letter. “What we need from a moonshot like this is the ability to truly have a collaborative ecosystem where the best minds, best tools and yes, very significant funding increases will be needed to make truly curing cancer a reality.

“While this is at the end of a Presidency, with the Vice President taking the lead, it can be the beginning of something great for future administrations. Cancer won’t be cured in the next 8 months but it can be cured in the years ahead. It is important to note other fantastic initiatives already underway at the NIH, and important very complimentary programs initiated by congress in 21st Century Cures. Many programs outlined in that bill, and its Senate counterpart, can really help springboard this initiative.”

The White House program to cure cancer should also include public health measures, said Otis Brawley, chief medical officer at the American Cancer Society.

“I’m very pro-moonshot. It is my belief that a concerted effort that looked at both improvement and research aimed at developing new therapies, research on how to prevent cancer, and how to disseminate research findings, and then programs to apply research findings is what is absolutely necessary,” Brawley said to The Cancer Letter. “One of the things that I’ve been pointing out this week, when we’re talking about dissemination of information and dissemination of research findings, we have a 40 percent decrease in breast cancer death rate in the U.S., despite the fact that 14 states have little or no decrease in death rate. The point is, a large proportion of women in those 14 states have not enjoyed the benefits of the research that has already been done.

“I think the ‘cure’ is a good aspirational goal. I have no problem with that language. I think what is more likely to happen is, with a concerted effort, some cancers will be cured and more will be treated in the more chronic disease model like diabetes or AIDS where people can live in peaceful coexistence with their disease for years.”

Biden’s moonshot will be of “tremendous help,” said Samuel Silver, chair of the board of directors of the National Comprehensive Cancer Network.

“As a treating physician of patients with cancer, personally as a cancer patient, and as a son whose parents both died of cancer, this is something I confront and think about every day,” said Silver, assistant dean for research and professor of internal medicine at the University of Michigan Comprehensive Cancer Center. “I applaud Vice President Biden’s moonshot initiative to cure cancer. His vision of breaking down silos, funding cancer researchers, enhancing the care provided by community physicians, stimulating discovery by the pharmaceutical industry, and bringing the cancer community together will be of tremendous help.

“However, we must realize that even though we are on the cusp of many important breakthroughs, cancer is a difficult disease caused by many different mechanisms, and it will require funding of everything from basic research to translational research, to important and well-thought-out trials, to the delivery of cancer care to our patients in order to make this initiative successful.”

The moonshot will foster greater collaboration among stakeholders, said Wendy Selig, president of the National Coalition for Cancer Research.

“NCCR commends and embraces the administration’s bold plan to significantly accelerate the pace of cancer research and foster greater collaboration among those involved in this effort,” Selig said. “We are living in an era of unprecedented advances in our understanding of cancer, which have led to the development of treatments that were unthinkable a short time ago such as cancer immunotherapy and targeted cancer therapeutics.

“We must harness the expertise, commitment and energy of the scientific and patient communities throughout the world to continue and build on that knowledge,” said Selig.

“Passage of the bipartisan 21st Century Cures Act by the House of Representatives signaled an important step forward in this conquest. NCCR looks forward to working closely with the administration, bipartisan congressional leaders and our colleagues in the cancer community to ensure the resources and strategies are in place to make the laudable and obtainable goal of a decade worth of advances in five years a reality.”


Associate Editor