Vice President Joe Biden's call for “a moonshot to cure cancer” contains lofty rhetoric, but a reorganization of research in the country and more money to help develop treatments has great potential for saving lives, researchers said.
A few months ago, when Biden announced he wouldn't be seeking the 2016 Democratic presidential nomination, he said he would instead devote much of his time to promoting cancer research. At his final State of the Union address Tuesday night, President Barack Obama put Biden in charge of an effort to “make America the country that cures cancer once and for all.”
Biden's son Beau died from brain cancer in May.
In a short outline of his plan, Biden said his focus will be on increasing public and private resources as well as breaking down silos that prevent researchers from sharing information.
“Here's what that means: The federal government will do everything it possibly can — through funding, targeted incentives, and increased private-sector coordination — to support research and enable progress,” he wrote.
Biden noted that few cancer patients have access to clinical trials or their own medical data. The majority of cancer patients are treated by oncologists outside of major cities, so they don't have access to the most recent treatments.
Dr. Ron DePinho, president of the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center, said one treatment showing promise is immunotherapy, which uses the body's natural defenses to fight the cancer.
Immunotherapy has cured some melanoma patients who would have been facing a death sentence a few years ago, he said.
DePinho believes early prevention should be another focus. There are promising biomarkers but few reliable diagnostic field tests that could catch cancer at an early, more treatable stage, he said.
The key to achieving results will be creating multidisciplinary teams that can turn research into medicine, legislation and public education.
Cancer is a large and heterogeneous disease, and “we still don't know everything we need to know to actually cure” it, DePinho said.
But the progress already made is encouraging, he said. MD Anderson does not shy away from strong goals. Its mission statement calls for eliminating cancer and the organization launched its own Moon Shots Program in 2012.
Biden's call for spreading knowledge and treatment opportunities to underserved areas is also extremely important in the fight against cancer, said DePinho, who has met with the vice president to discuss how best to continue research and treatment.
Technological advances could be key in that area. Cloud data storage could help scientists compare notes. Software is being developed for rural providers to have access to the knowledge of national institutions, he said.
That knowledge is also desperately needed in other parts of the world, where cancer treatment is scarce or nonexistent, he said.
“This is something that we're pushing very hard on and the vice president was very, very excited about,” he said.
Dr. Clifford Hudis, vice president for government relations at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York City, said the best way to immediately use resources for fighting cancer would be to completely restructure biomedical research in the country. He has also consulted with Biden, including at a meeting last week.
Data collection and sharing should be easier and more productive. Drugs being developed need to be matched with patients who could benefit from them and advance studies, he said.
Drug testing also needs to be more efficient, Hudis said. “Lots of drugs take a long time to ultimately fail and that costs a lot of time and money,” he said.
He's disappointed by the difficulty scientists and doctors face sharing results. He adds that the lack of information for primary-care doctors and patients is frustrating, but “the opportunity and potential is real,” he said.
Hudis also agreed that rallying for a cancer cure makes the issue seem easier to tackle than it truly is. But he likes the moonshot analogy because it shows how people working toward a common and important endeavor can make progress.
“You have to start someplace,” he said. “I think it's actually uplifting and exciting.”
The nation has tried before to eliminate cancer. In 1971, President Richard Nixon signed the National Cancer Act to begin what was dubbed the War on Cancer. It is credited with helping improve survival rates for some cancers. Still, the disease is currently the second most common cause of death in the United States.
U.S. House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Fred Upton (R-Mich.) said in a statement Tuesday that he has met with Biden on the initiative and welcomes the chance for the parties to work together to pass the 21st Century Cures Act.
The act, which has passed the House and is now before the Senate, has similar aims of improving collaboration among researchers and modernizing clinical trials. It is currently stalled, however, partly because it is not paid for.
The National Institutes for Health received a $2 billion budget increase in an omnibus budget deal passed last month. The National Cancer Institute, which is part of the NIH, has a 2016 appropriation of $5.21 billion, an increase of more than $260 million from the prior year.
Mary Woolley, CEO of Research America, said Biden's confidence and vision are fully supported.
“The additional funds for medical research in the FY16 omnibus will help accelerate medical progress, and we hope that this level of commitment can be sustained and increased moving forward,” she said.