For the first time, America talked together Wednesday about ending cancer — from a Cancer Moonshot Summit at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center to hundreds of simultaneous gatherings in all 50 states on the “national day of action” to speed cures.
At Fred Hutch, an afternoon-long forum convened scientists, physicians and other top minds from the Hutch and its partners — UW Medicine, Seattle Cancer Care Alliance and Seattle Children’s — to discuss how their combined research can save more lives and reduce more suffering.
The coordinated events embodied the largest public push yet for Vice President Joe Biden’s “Cancer Moonshot” initiative, which seeks a decade of medical advances in five years through a $1 billion research infusion and tighter collaboration. To that end, Biden led the national Moonshot conference at Howard University in Washington, D.C., having assembled more than 350 patients, doctors and scientists from across the country.
“I’m more optimistic than any time since we launched the Moonshot because of what I’ve seen and heard today,” Biden said in a speech broadcast live to more than 6,000 participants who joined 270 regional summits across the U.S.
“The whole world is counting on us. Everywhere I go in the world … this is what they raise with me. They know about what you’re doing, they know about what we’re trying to do. And they want to collaborate as well. There’s a sense of: let’s get it done now,” Biden said.
The national summit in Washington, D.C., marked the first “really full-blown collaboration” where stakeholders in science, business, politics, health care, patient advocacy and other key sectors spoke and listened about stopping cancer while sitting in the same room at the same time, Biden said.
“Today’s events — the summit here in Washington (D.C.) and the regional meetings across the U.S. — are gathering all the right people to have all the right conversations in ways only Vice President Biden can inspire,” said Dr. Gary Gilliland, president and director of Fred Hutch, invited by Biden to attend the national meeting. "We can get this done, together."
In Seattle, former Washington Gov. Christine Gregoire welcomed to the Hutch local leaders in science, health, business and tech as well as numerous people with personal cancer experiences. About 100 people joined the conversation.
“We are all in this together,” said Gregoire, vice chair of the Fred Hutch board of trustees. “As you well know, in order to solve big, complex problems and improve patient outcomes and save lives, it will require … that we work across the specialties and sectors and we partner.
“My hope for today is that we can collectively take advantage of this opportunity and contribute what each of us can to the cause of curing, not just treating, cancer.”
The Puget Sound region is ideally positioned to show America the way forward in cancer care and cures, Gregoire said.
“First, it starts with our collaborative spirit. That’s just who we are. No one person can find the answers to these dreaded diseases,” Gregoire said. “Second, we are already proven leaders and pioneers in fighting cancer, first with bone marrow transplantation and now with immunotherapy.”
The meeting rallied a number of patients, survivors and advocates to discuss what more must be done to finance cures, bolster prevention, improve diagnoses and enhance access to care.
Other speakers included: Susan Johnson, region 10 director of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services; Dr. Paul Ramsey, CEO of UW Medicine; Dr. Fred Appelbaum, president of Seattle Cancer Care Alliance and executive vice president and deputy director of Fred Hutch; Dr. Julie Park, fellowship program director at Seattle Children’s; and Matthew Trunnell, chief information officer at Fred Hutch.
Trunnell has said combining clinical data with molecular and genomic data will reveal insights into the mechanisms of disease and inform individual therapeutic decisions for particular patients.
“It becomes clear that to push (cancer) science to scale, we need a new generation of infrastructure and capability,” Trunnell said at the summit.
“We sit watching big data accelerating other fields. We interact with it on Amazon and Netflix. … But it hasn’t touched us (in health and medicine) quite to the degree that it could and should,” he added.
Data-driven applications and analytics are considered keystones in the quest for cures — and the Cancer Moonshot. When Biden visited the Hutch in March during his Moonshot “listening tour,” he cited the potential for big data to help crack big cancer mysteries.
“The Moonshot is about translating, taking that basic science as fast as possible to the bedsides,” said Ramsey, the CEO of UW Medicine. “We really have the opportunity to lead the country in the Moonshot … based on immunotherapy.”
In a Hutch study that garnered recent headlines, 93 percent of participants with advanced B-cell acute lymphocytic leukemia, or ALL, went into complete remission after their T cells (immune cells) were re-engineered into cancer killers. Previous treatments had already failed all of the trial patients.
“I am excited by the opportunities afforded through the Cancer Moonshot effort, including a heightened focus on collaboration around three pillars of promising science at Fred Hutch — big data, immunotherapy and precision medicine,” Gilliland said Wednesday from Washington, D.C.
Gilliland then watched Biden unleash to listeners in every state yet another national charge to hasten cures.
“Remember, cancer never quits. Cancer never sleeps. Cancer doesn’t say, 'Well I can do damage tomorrow.' It’s now. It’s now,” Biden said. “We’ve got to move the reality and we’ve got to work on it every single day. … Failure is not an option.
“Every day thousands of people are dying. … They don’t give up hope. They hang on. They’re like our son.”
Beau Biden, who died of brain cancer in 2015, helped inspire Joe Biden to create and spearhead the Cancer Moonshot. Near the end of his life, Beau Biden told his father, “Dad, I’m OK, I’m not afraid, keep going,” the vice president revealed in his national speech Wednesday.
“We can end cancer as we know it,” the vice president said. “We need to keep this collaboration going. This summit isn’t the end of anything. It’s the beginning.
“We’re in this game, man. We’re in it up to our hips, up to our ears. [It’s time] to lead people across this country to believe that we can do anything,” Biden said.
Earlier Wednesday, Biden announced a series of new public and private sector actions to push progress toward halting cancer.
Those efforts include a fresh collaboration between the U.S. Department of Defense, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs and the National Cancer Institute to use state-of-the-art research methods in proteogenomics, an emerging field that meshes genomics with proteomics — the study of all proteins in a given cell or organism.
The goal of that tri-agency agreement: rapidly identify unique targets and pathways of cancer for detection and treatment. To do that, scientists will look at a patient’s genes that may lead to cancer and the expression of those genes in the form of proteins. The effort is called the Applied Proteogenomics OrganizationaL Learning and Outcomes (APOLLO) Consortium.
“I’m really excited the vice president’s Moonshot initiative will include this new APOLLO Consortium,” said Dr. Amanda Paulovich, an oncologist and cancer geneticist at Fred Hutch who studies the role of proteins in cancer. Biden invited Paulovich to attend the National Moonshot Summit in Washington.
“The (Human) Genome Project has taught us a tremendous amount of cancer biology. The proteome is the next logical layer of the onionskin that should be peeled off,” Paulovich said. “The technology is finally there to do it.”
Sequencing the genome was a step toward cancer cures. Next, science must unravel the role proteins play in the rise, spread and treatment of tumors, Paulovich said.
DNA serves as the blueprint for proteins, our cellular workhorses. Our proteins change from minute to minute, carrying out the body’s physiology.
Here’s why that emerging field is crucial: These changing proteins act as the targets of cancer drugs and therapies, Paulovich said. By merging our fresh grasp of the genome with a better understanding of which genomic changes get translated into proteins, science can complete the puzzle of personalized medicine for cancer.
“It’s the proteins that are the targets of most anti-cancer drugs,” Paulovich said. “So we hope our work in proteomics will complement the DNA profiles sequenced in people to help us better treat patients.”
At Fred Hutch, Paulovich is co-leading a collaboration of scientists from across the country focused on proteins and breast cancer. This research — the first large-scale study of its kind in breast cancer — has already demonstrated how proteomics can reveal which of the many mutations in a tumor are actually driving a cancer’s development and suggest new targets for personalized cancer-killing drugs.
Biden announced a barrage of other new cancer-research partnerships. They include actions to:
Biden also announced a new National Institutes of Health public-private partnership for accelerating cancer therapies.
NIH is collaborating with 12 biopharmaceutical companies, multiple research foundations, philanthropies and the Foundation for the NIH to develop a new program under the Cancer Moonshot, the Partnership for Accelerating Cancer Therapies, or PACT, according to a White House news release.
“PACT will fund pre-competitive cancer research and share broadly all data generated for further research, ultimately bringing more new therapies to patients in less time,” the release said. “Potential initial focus areas include understanding responses to cancer therapies, clinical trial platforms for combination therapies, predictive modeling approaches, and therapies for rare cancers.”
Bill Briggs is a former Fred Hutch News Service staff writer. Follow him at @writerdude. Previously, he was a contributing writer for NBCNews.com and TODAY.com, covering breaking news, health and the military. Prior, he was a staff writer for The Denver Post, part of the newspaper's team that earned the Pulitzer Prize for coverage of the Columbine High School massacre. He has authored two books, including "The Third Miracle: an Ordinary Man, a medical Mystery, and a Trial of Faith."