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President Joe Biden is relaunching the Cancer Moonshot research initiative. Oliver Contreras/Bloomberg via Getty Images
  • President Joe Biden has unveiled plans to relaunch the Cancer Moonshot research program.
  • The goal is to reduce cancer deaths by 50 percent within 25 years.
  • Experts say the initiative would greatly boost research and expand clinical trials to include more segments of society.
  • They note that funding for the program still needs to be solidified.

President Joe Biden recently announced plans to reignite the federal government’s Cancer Moonshot research program to reduce deaths from cancer by 50 percent in the next 25 years.

“This is a presidential priority,” Biden said in a news conference, calling the initiative “one of the truly bipartisan issues in the United States Congress.”

The original Cancer Moonshot began in 2016, launched by then-Vice President Biden. It was signed into law at the end of President Barack Obama’s second term to accelerate scientific discoveries, data sharing, and institutional collaboration to defeat cancer.

The White House’s recent announcement broadens that purpose, singling out preventive screenings as a critical piece to reducing the cancer death rate as well as reducing “stark inequities based on race, disparity, ZIP code, sexual orientation, gender identity, and other factors.”

The president also announced the creation of a “Cancer Cabinet” made up of doctors and stakeholders to help steer this issue.

“This is a very important initiative, and perhaps not totally analogous to the original moonshot because the problem is more pervasive than landing a man on the moon,” Dr. Raphael Pollock, the director of The Ohio State University Comprehensive Cancer Center, told Healthline. “And it is certainly going to require a longer timeline than one year or five years.”

The Cancer Moonshot program has already advanced cancer research, diagnostics, and care.

Since the initial program began, more than 240 research projects have been funded and 70 programs and consortiums, according to the National Cancer Institute.

The fruits of some of these projects include improved immunotherapies for adults with specific cancers, discoveries in pediatric cancer treatment, and efforts to map and database human tumors to understand more about cancer and cancer treatment.

“Cancer Moonshot funding was big on our radar. We have a lot of initiatives funded through it,” said Catherine Gregor, the chief clinical trial officer at Florence Healthcare and former head of administration for the cancer research center at Vanderbilt University in Tennessee.

But the promise of this recommitment to the moonshot program lies in part from lessons learned from the COVID-19 pandemic, she said.

“Because of COVID, we’ve learned what clinical trials can do when it’s an all hands on deck approach from the federal level, the speed at which we stood up those trials and got people enrolled and move through that has been unprecedented,” Gregor told Healthline. “All these groups were forced to realize like a lot of the things we thought we couldn’t do by regulation isn’t true – we were holding ourselves back.”

The White House also mentioned expanding access to screening, including mobile screening, community health networks, and at-home testing – the last of which consumers have become increasingly familiar with during the pandemic.

Pollock agreed with that approach.

“The lowest-lying fruit, in my opinion, is going to be by bringing screening to medically underserved populations of patients,” he said. “And having identified patients at risk or patients hopefully with early stage disease using culturally sensitive navigation tools to make sure that those individuals get either the surveillance and or the treatment therapies that are afforded to the majority populations.”

The ability to collect samples for clinical trials without trial participants having to travel hundreds of miles can also help improve trial diversity and reduce barriers to participation.

“Imagine we actually flatten the geography, and we can reach so many more people and keep them involved, and it’s not such a time suck and money suck if they can just go to the local Walgreens and get their labs done instead of coming to downtown Nashville,” Gregor added. “No more battling traffic and sitting for 8 hours to get lab draw.”

One thing missing from the Biden plan thus far is the earmarking of any additional funding, which experts say will be a critical component to its success.

“Cancer centers and clinical trial offices are very expensive to run, and usually they’re doing it at a deficit. So if they can tap into federal funding to support those programs, that allows them to increase their capacity and throughput, which means that we can do more trials if we could do them faster,” Gregor said

The 21st Century Cures Act, which funded the initiative, set aside $1.8 billion over 7 years toward the effort, meaning there are still 2 years of initial funding left in the program.

The White House’s fact sheet does mention the administration’s newly created Advanced Research Projects Agency for Health, which seeks $6.5 billion in seed funding to “improve the U.S. government’s capabilities to speed research that can improve human health,” including cancer.

However, bills that would fund this initiative are currently stuck in Congress.

“I will do my part on funding and using my authorities as president to break logjams and speed breakthroughs,” Biden said in his speech.