If President Obama wants to do a “moonshot” to cure cancer, the research community says it’s ready for liftoff.
“It is imperative that we continue to fund the brightest minds to explore the nature and biology of our nation’s number two killer,” said American Cancer Society Chief Medical Officer Dr. Otis W. Brawley in a statement. “Done right, we can build on our past investment and spur even more progress against the disease.”
Dr. Brian Bolwell, chair of the Taussig Cancer Institute at the Cleveland Clinic agrees. “We are thrilled. We agree with a lot of the proposals (the president) discussed,” he told Healthline. “The timing is quite fortuitous.”
Bolwell said that he and other cancer researchers hope the president’s call to action will result in increased federal funding, better access to clinical research, and needed changes in the insurance and pharmaceutical industries.
“There is a lot of opportunity for progress,” Bolwell said.
Launching a ‘Moonshot’
During his State of the Union speech on Tuesday night, Obama announced a campaign to bolster research and treatment to fight cancer. The president compared the proposal to President John F. Kennedy’s call in May 1961 for the United States to put an astronaut on the moon before 1970, something the nation accomplished.
“For the loved ones we’ve all lost, for the families that we can still save, let’s make America the country that cures cancer once and for all,” the president said.
Obama said he was putting Vice President Joe Biden in charge of the effort. In a post on Medium, Biden said the proposal is timely because of new, cutting-edge advancements in cancer research such as immunotherapy and genomics.
“The goal of this initiative — this ‘Moonshot’ — is to seize this moment. To accelerate our efforts to progress towards a cure, and to unleash new discoveries and breakthroughs for other deadly diseases,” Biden wrote.
The vice president said he plans to increase resources for cancer research and “break down silos” so “cancer fighters can work together.”
He starts immediately. Biden will visit the Abramson Cancer Center at the University of Pennsylvania’s Perelman School of Medicine on Friday.
Biden said he is even more determined to achieve this goal because of the death of his 46-year-old son, Beau, to brain cancer last May.
“It’s personal for me. But it’s also personal for nearly every American and millions of people around the world,” Biden wrote. “We all know someone who has had cancer or is fighting to beat it. They’re our family, friends, and co-workers.”
Show Us the Money
Bolwell said he “very much likes the idea” of having Biden head up this campaign. He said there has been a “void” in leadership in Washington, D.C., on cancer research since the 2009 death of Sen. Edward Kennedy. He believes Biden can step into that role.
Brawley agrees. “The president’s commitment to a moonshot against cancer led by Vice President Biden is a galvanizing call for a renewed effort to find new tools to fight cancer,” he said in his statement.
Bolwell added he likes the theme of a “moonshot” campaign, but he is concerned it will raise people’s hopes too high.
He said going to the moon was a “linear mission” that involved conquering physics. Defeating cancer is a different challenge, one he doesn’t think the medical community will fully accomplish in the next 10 years.
“The main thing is to focus on progress,” he said.
Bolwell said he hopes the president’s proposal will inspire more federal funding for research, which is already in the works.
The National Institutes for Health, for example, received a $2 billion increase in funding in a federal spending bill approved last month. As part of that, the National Cancer Institute got a 5 percent boost in funds.
However, Bolwell pointed out that funding for cancer research is still too low to be as effective as it needs to be, especially given the advances made the past several years in immune-based treatments and genetic-based research.
“There are a lot of great ideas that are, unfortunately, underfunded,” he said.
What Else Needs to Happen
Bolwell also hopes the new campaign will include expanded testing and screening to catch cancer early as well as increase access to high-quality care for low-income patients.
In addition, Bolwell hopes the program will foster changes in both the insurance and pharmaceutical industries. Among other things, Bolwell said he’d like to see insurance companies cover the cost of genomic testing of tumors. This would allow all cancer patients to receive new, more precise therapies.
Prescription drugs prices need to come down, too, he added. The cost of a new course of cancer therapy has increased tenfold in the past decade from $10,000 to $100,000. At that rate of inflation, a typical cancer treatment will cost $1 million by 2026.
“The rate of that price acceleration is unsustainable,” he said.
He also noted that patients need better access to clinical trials. Only 5 percent of cancer patients participate in clinical trials today, and Bolwell believes it would be easy to increase that to 20 percent.
Bolwell applauds the president’s ambition to break down institutional “silos” so data on cancer research can be shared more quickly and more broadly. He said pharmaceutical companies now protect their research results for competitive reasons. He’d like to see that change.
So would the American Cancer Society.
“Just as important as continuing to explore new science is a concerted effort to gather what we already know about cancer and find ways to apply these tools more effectively to save lives,” ACS’s Brawley said in his statement. “If we applied what we already know about cancer prevention, early detection, and treatment, we could prevent a substantial proportion of the nearly 600,000 cancer deaths in the U.S. each year.”
That sharing should continue among scientists around the world, as well. In fact, it already does.
“The scientific community is pretty good at transcending politics,” he said.
China has secured breakthroughs in the treatment of leukemia. There is also hope for a lung cancer vaccine developed in Cuba, especially now that relations have been normalized between the United States and the island nation.
The vice president also recognizes that it will take an international scientific army to eventually defeat cancer.
“I know that we can help solidify a genuine global commitment to end cancer as we know it today,” Biden wrote, “and inspire a new generation of scientists to pursue new discoveries and the bounds of human endeavor.”