What's up with the cancer moonshot?

5 things to know about the national cancer initiative now underway
Vice President Joe Biden and President Barack Obama
Vice President Joe Biden responds to a shoutout from President Barack Obama during the president's State of the Union address, Jan. 12, 2016, in Washington D.C. The president had just named Biden to lead a "moonshot" effort to cure cancer. Photo by Evan Vucci / AP file

UPDATE: On Monday, March 21, Vice President Joe Biden visited Fred Hutch as part of his National Cancer Moonshot initiative listening tour. You can read about his visit here, see images from the historic day here, and learn more about the moonshot here. Also, we featured Dr. David Maloney in a Facebook Live broadcast on Tuesday, March 22. Maloney discussed his work in cancer immunotherapy. If you missed his live talk, you can see it here.

With Vice President Joe Biden visiting Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center Monday as part of his National Cancer Moonshot “listening tour,” here are five things to know about the moonshot initiative.

Whose idea was this?

During his final State of the Union address in January, President Barack Obama launched a “new moonshot” to speed up cancer cures. He called on Biden, who both inspired and named the new effort, to take charge of “mission control.”

Biden already was a man on a mission. In May 2015, his older son, former Delaware Attorney General Beau Biden, died of brain cancer at age 46. In October, the still-grieving vice president surrendered his dream of running for president and said that instead he would dedicate his time and energy to “a moonshot in this country to cure cancer … an absolute national commitment to end cancer as we know it today.”

What is the moonshot expected to accomplish?

Cancer is now known to be hundreds of complex diseases, and no one, including Biden, believes in a one-shot cancer cure-all. His stated goal is to double the pace of progress or, in his words, “make a decade worth of advances in five years.”

In blog posts and speeches since the announcement, Biden has said that to do this, he will focus on:

How much funding is going to go into this?

The White House has called for almost $1 billion to kick-start the initiative — $195 million available immediately for the National Institutes of Health, or NIH, and $755 million requested in the Fiscal Year 2017 budget proposal for the NIH and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

But Biden also has talked about other ways to speed progress besides funding. Describing himself as a “convener” and a relationship-builder, he wants to focus on:

  • Breaking down silos and encouraging collaboration among researchers in different academic disciplines and different institutions as well as among researchers, patients and drug companies. One example Biden has used: Two different drug companies make two different drugs that treat the same cancer. Clinicians think the two would be most effective if combined —but getting approval to do so “is like … getting a nuclear deal with Iran.”
  • Clearing regulatory red tape, with more efforts like the FDA’s Breakthrough Therapy Designation, which fast-tracks review and approval of promising treatments. As part of the initiative, the FDA will develop a virtual Oncology Center of Excellence to expedite the development of novel drugs and devices, including novel combination treatments.

So where are we now in the process?  

In late January, the White House created a Cancer Moonshot Task Force chaired by Biden and made up of the heads of the NIH, the National Cancer Institute, the National Science Foundation, the FDA, the Defense and Veterans Administration departments and other federal agencies.

Even before the State of the Union announcement, Biden had met with almost 200 cancer researchers, physicians, patients and philanthropists. Since January, he has visited the University of Pennsylvania’s Abramson Cancer Center in Philadelphia to launch the moonshot and discuss immunotherapy, the Duke Cancer Institute and Duke University School of Medicine in Durham, North Carolina, to talk about standardizing data and increasing access to clinical trials, the Huntsman Cancer Institute in Salt Lake City to discuss big data and the UC San Francisco/Helen Diller Family Comprehensive Cancer Center in San Francisco for a round table on precision medicine. He has also talked tactics for sharing data and recruiting clinical trial participants at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland.

On Monday, Biden will meet with Fred Hutch President and Director Dr. Gary Gilliland and with Hutch and other Seattle researchers.

When will we see an 'action plan'?

If the moonshot initiative as announced was high on aspiration but short on details, the listening tour and other meetings are intended to guide Biden and the task force toward specific goals.

A still-to-be-named advisory panel of scientific experts is expected to produce detailed recommendations on how to accelerate cancer prevention, treatments and cures, improve patient access, support greater access to data and research, reduce regulatory barriers, ensure optimal investment of federal research dollars and promote public-private partnerships. Those recommendations are due in June.

But as far as Biden is concerned, the effort won’t stop there. In his blog post about the initiative, he wrote, “I want you to know that I’ll be focusing the rest of the time I have in office — and the rest of my life — on this effort.”

What would you like to see the cancer moonshot initiative tackle? Join the conversation on Facebook.



Mary Engel is a former staff writer at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Center. Previously, she covered medicine and health policy for the Los Angeles Times, where she was part of a team that won a Pulitzer Prize for Public Service. She was also a fellow at the Knight Science Journalism Program at MIT. Follow her on Twitter @Engel140.

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