With a sheaf of recommendations in hand, Vice President Joe Biden visited the Oval Office on Monday to deliver the final report of his Cancer Moonshot Task Force, just nine months after President Obama famously put him in charge of it.
Packaged within 38 pages, the report lays out a strategy “to achieve a decade of progress in 5 years,” placing heavy emphasis on harnessing the power of the immune system to fight tumors, and using supercomputers to pick precise therapies by sifting mountains of biomedical data.
At the White House, Biden blended soaring rhetoric about America’s capacity to achieve great things with a sober assessment of the challenges facing this moonshot. “There’s only one moon,” he said. “There are 200 cancers.”
In the midst of a bitterly contested election season, Biden contends that there is still a national consensus to boost support for cancer research. “This is the last bastion of genuine, true bipartisanship,” he said. “We will get, I predict to you, a significant increase in funding this year, from this Congress, and we’ll get a commitment to keep that commitment going for the next 10 years.”
Among those attending that session was Dr. Gary Gilliland, Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center president and director, who hosted Biden at the Hutch on March 21 as part of his National Cancer Moonshot “listening tour.” Then, as now, the Vice President focused on the importance of immunotherapy and the need to share medical data among institutions.
The Moonshot report highlighted examples of collaborative efforts to make medical data more readily available for scientists to aggregate and search for patterns, data ranging from genomic information to family histories to patient outcomes.
As an example, Biden singled out a newly formed partnership of the National Cancer Institute with Microsoft and Amazon Web Services to store genomic data in the cloud, where cancer researchers can more easily access the information. The two technology giants, each based in the Seattle area, are both heavily involved in competing efforts to develop cloud computing, where data is stored remotely and accessed via the Internet. In July, Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella and Amazon Web Services vice president Mike Clayville joined the Fred Hutch board of trustees.
After months of meetings, thousands of miles logged touring cancer research centers, and sorting through thousands of recommendations, the Cancer Moonshot Task Force report boiled it all down to five strategic goals focused on speeding the pace of cancer research. It also listed 45 specific steps to be taken in the next two years. The report closely dovetails with recommendations released in September by a blue ribbon panel of cancer advisors, and the final version of their report was released Monday as well.
Fred Hutch researchers are heavily engaged in collaborative research programs that share patient data, such as the GAME-ON Consortium (Genetic Associations and Mechanisms in Oncology) where researchers involved in more than 50 studies at different institutions are sharing data on colorectal cancer alone. Dr. Riki Peters, a genetic epidemiologist in Fred Hutch’s Public Health Sciences Division, is co-leading efforts that have pooled data from more than 100,000 colorectal cancer patients.
“Collaborations across the globe are critical,” Peters said. “It’s been a huge effort, decades of effort leading to this.” She described the effort as one that brings together pieces of puzzle, identifying genetic risk factors for cancer that previously were unknown. “We’ve been able to make substantial progress in finding various genetic risk factors. That’s only possible by bringing all of the data together.”
Peters was among more than 70 co-authors of a paper, just published by the American Association for Cancer Research, describing how “an inexpensive genotyping microarray,” called the OncoArray, had identified genetic variants on nearly 450,000 samples from cancer patients, helping researchers to locate regions on the human genomes where these potentially cancer-causing mutations are found.
Projects like this lie at the heart of the Moonshot’s strategy of speeding up cancer research. The initiative’s number one goal, to “catalyze new scientific breakthroughs,” calls for interdisciplinary approaches to discover what goes wrong in the biological machinery, which can show what leads to cancer and what needs to be fixed to treat it. The number two goal is almost self-explanatory: “unleash the power of data.”
Additional strategic goals include finding ways to speed the regulatory process so that laboratory breakthroughs have shorter paths to the cancer patient’s bedside. The Moonshot Report also calls for strengthening cancer-prevention efforts, deepening our understanding of environmental risk factors, and improving patient access to care.
The Cancer Moonshot, announced in January during President Barack Obama’s State of the Union Address, is built on the philosophy that studying and creating new cancer treatments should be a collaborative enterprise tapping the power of big data and the potential of public-private partnerships.
As the Obama administration enters its twilight days, Biden compared this moonshot effort to President Richard Nixon’s “War on Cancer,” which he said the well-meaning president launched in 1972 “without an army.” Although Biden’s Cancer Moonshot, which has yet to receive the $700 million in funding he is seeking, is smaller in scale than Nixon’s push, but Biden noted that cancer research has progressed by leaps and bounds since then. “We now have powerful new technologies and tools,” he said. “We have an army.”
Biden took on the assignment of leading the Moonshot after he decided he would not run for the presidency this year in light of his son Beau’s death from brain cancer in 2015. “What we learned,” he told the gathering of cancer researchers, “was that even if you couldn’t save our son, the science, the medicine the technology are progressing faster than ever, to be able to save countless other sons and daughters.”
Sabin Russell is a staff writer at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center. For two decades he covered medical science, global health and health care economics for the San Francisco Chronicle, and wrote extensively about infectious diseases, including HIV/AIDS. He was a Knight Science Journalism Fellow at MIT, and a freelance writer for the New York Times and Health Affairs. Reach him at email@example.com.