Joe Biden’s Moonshot Initiative to Cure Cancer

Illustration of mesothelioma research

Earlier this year, the White House introduced a Cancer Moonshot Initiative, a new program designed to search for a cure for cancer. In his State of the Union Address in January, President Obama discussed the new initiative, asking for nearly $1 billion of extra spending over the next couple of years. Cancer centers, advocacy groups, government agencies, and companies are all working together to coordinate efforts to dismantle the barriers that often slow this process down. Vice President Joe Biden is at the helm of the initiative – his 46-year-old son having died last year due to brain cancer.

The main idea behind the Cancer Moonshot is to speed up developments in cancer research. According to Biden, the Moonshot should help achieve 10 years’ worth of research progress within 5 years. The program will clear out all the obstacles in the way of communication, such as sharing research and making collaboration between cancer centers, doctors, patients, and advocates easier than ever.

Organizing a Cancer Moonshot

Among proposals to improve efficiency at the federal level, Biden announced the establishment of the Oncology Center of Excellence, which will be responsible for reviewing FDA cancer treatments. It’s going to be the first out of four centers that allow for better tailoring of drugs to a genetic profile of an individual, known as personalized medicine. In addition, the National Cancer Institute (NCI) is currently working on an agreement with 30 different drug companies to allow laboratories access various experimental compounds without negotiating small details.

The key to the Cancer Moonshot is collaboration. Only close cooperation of different disciplines, such as immunology and gene research, can stimulate the development of new and unique solutions. This cooperation was the focus of the Cancer Moonshot summits that took place across the country in June, which brought together people from various agencies, organizations, and medical disciplines, as well as patients and advocates, to discuss new ways of cancer research. The primary summit took place at the White House in Washington, D.C., with Vice President Biden as the host, with hundreds of other locations throughout the country joining in through an online connection.

Such collaboration between different players in the cancer research and advocacy space could help resolve some of the problems that have cropped up with respect to finding a cure. For example, there is a lack of understanding around immunotherapy; in particular, researchers are uncertain as to why immunotherapy treatments work on only 20% of all patients. The hope is that by combining knowledge about the different types of immunotherapy practices that currently exist, researchers will be able to develop more effective treatments.

Another way that cooperation will help is by sharing resources and data. The Department of Energy and NCI are working together to coordinate computers at Los Alamos, Argonne, and a several other national laboratories to increase the rate of data processing for experiments, cancer surveillance, and genetic mutations. This distributed processing model will ideally help researchers understand how different treatments work, and the effectiveness of those treatments for various populations. Such projects could boost initiatives such as the Collaborative Cancer Cloud, a genomics project designed to tailor gene therapies to individual patients. These agencies are also cooperating with the Department of Veterans Affairs to study 8,000 cancer patients and research how their genes affect their response to treatments.

An important aspect of the Cancer Moonshot is prevention efforts. Biden said that it is possible to prevent 50 percent of cancer cases if we increase education efforts and provide more local screening opportunities. He also wants to encourage private companies to research more to improve their products, like sunscreens.

One such private effort is Alex’s Lemonade Stand Foundation (ALSF). This charitable organization, which was started in 2000 by 4-year-old Alexandra Scott, has promised to double its investment in childhood cancer research by providing more than $150 million in funding within next five years. This money will help to also launch bioinformatics laboratories to interpret cancer data to accelerate the invention of new cures.

Another example is the American Cancer Society, which is the largest nonprofit funder of cancer research in the U.S. They are also going to double their research budget within 5 years. Today, they spend almost $100 million a year in grants and almost $20 million in their own research.

The Cancer Moonshot Task Force

The White House Cancer Moonshot Task Force was created to focus on making private sector and federal investments, and providing other incentives to support cancer studies and speed up progress in care and treatment development. Biden charged the Task Force with achieving a set of certain aims before December 31, 2016, which are:

  • Stimulate rapid development of new cancer treatments;
  • Educate people about cancer prevention, treatment, and cure;
  • Provide patients with care;
  • Allow researchers to access critical data without obstacle;
  • Ensure a suitable investment of resources;
  • Find new opportunities for partnership and increase cooperation among existing organizations;
  • Solve problems and develop reforms.

The National Cancer Advisory Board, as well as experts from different scientific sectors, will assist with these goals and help reach out to representatives from nonprofit organizations, business, academia, government agencies, and other interested people.

The White House will provide the funding to accelerate the development of new treatments. The Cancer Moonshot Initiative is already underway, using $195 million approved as part of an omnibus budget bill at the end of 2015. For the next several years, the White House is seeking an additional $755 million to promote new research funded by the National Institutes of Health (NIH), Food and Drug Administration, and other federal agencies.

Given all of these efforts, there is a lot of hope around the Cancer Moonshot Initiative. Even as this year marks President Obama’s last term in office, the work being done now based on his State of the Union speech could ultimately be a lasting legacy of his administration.