Shooting for the Moon

In his final State of the Union address earlier this month, President Obama called for a “moonshot” cure for cancer. Inspired by President John F. Kennedy’s ambitious and eventually successful mission to land a man on the moon and with Vice President Joe Biden at the forefront, the Administration’s fight against cancer involves rigorous planning on behalf of the White House as well as cooperation between public and private industries around the world.

Biden lost his eldest child, Beau, 46, to brain cancer last year. Beau was treated at MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, Texas, a renowned cancer hospital that pioneered its own Moon Shots Program in 2012, which developed and tested cutting edge new cancer treatments chosen through a comprehensive peer-review process.

Following the president’s speech, Biden published an online post delineating the Administration’s moonshot cancer plan. The White House is working to funnel current public attention around curing cancer into a thorough agenda fitting 10 years’ worth of research into five. In his post, Biden lists innovative medical treatments — including immunotherapy, genomics and combination therapies — as vital to the moonshot effort. Biden’s plan is two-pronged: It expands resources helping cure cancer, and also helps bring those resources together and to patients.

To do so, the vice president is collaborating with federal officials, private industries, researchers, physicians, patients and charitable organizations. Earlier this month, he met with physicians at the University of Pennsylvania’s Perelman School of Medicine and convened with experts at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. He also plans to head meetings with government and private officials discussing federal investment in cancer treatment. The National Cancer Institute has received a $264 million budget increase for 2016.

But despite the renewed focus around ending cancer, experts are warning that the disease is extremely complicated — and that it will need diverse assortment of treatment options, not a moonshot cure. Rather than a one-size-fits-all approach, new developments in cancer medications are increasingly providing personalized care targeting specific types of cancer and taking into account patients’ genetic and immune responses.

And as the moonshot effort continues, experts are weighing in. According to Chief Medical and Scientific Officer for the American Cancer Society Otis Brawley, although curing cancer may be a long way off, “Gathering and analyzing data about a large number of cancer patients could provide quick and important advances.” Dr. Brawley believes that the vice president should use his political clout to restructure patient privacy laws that block researchers from accessing significant data. Health Economist at the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs Austin Frakt, Ph.D., says much the same, urging Biden to break down the barriers restricting data access. In accessing data, researchers will be able to better understand the wide variety of cancers and how they affect different patients and populations.

Johns Hopkins School of Medicine Cancer Outcomes Researcher Claire Snyder points out that the cancer moonshot conversation also needs to consider how to provide patients the highest quality of life possible — even without a cure. “We need to be making sure we are taking care of the patient and not just giving them drugs,” she says. Beyond scientific advances, the moonshot movement must reevaluate the conversation around living with cancer.

Although the cure to cancer may not be imminent, working together across industries and affinities is vital to ending this deadly disease. As Biden notes, “The goal of this initiative — this ‘Moonshot’ — is to seize this moment.” Despite cancer’s long history and likely long future, through worldwide collaboration, communication and innovation we can fight cancer to the best of our abilities.



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-Zoya Haroon