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Healthy Living

10 Years Of Cancer Progress In Five: The Science Behind The Cancer Moonshot

This post is written by the co-chairs of the Cancer Moonshot Blue Ribbon Panel: Dinah Singer, PhD, acting deputy director, National Cancer Institute (NCI) and director, NCI Division of Cancer Biology; Tyler Jacks, PhD, director, Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and Elizabeth Jaffee, MD, professor and deputy director for translational research, Sidney Kimmel Comprehensive Cancer Center, Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine.

In a sense, we three are children of Richard Nixon’s War on Cancer, cancer researchers who joined the fight in part due to the opportunities that this dedicated national effort funded and organized. Over the past four decades, we have witnessed—and participated in—the significant successes of this effort in unraveling the mysteries of this set of diseases, many of which have been translated into better outcomes for patients. We have also deeply experienced the challenges that cancer still presents, among them its remarkable complexity and infuriating ability to resist or overcome therapy.

Today we serve as part of an exciting new presidentially-mandated directive for cancer research. During his State of the Union address this past January, President Obama announced his intentions to launch the Cancer Moonshot and named Vice President Biden “head of Mission Control.” Since then, the Vice President has thrown himself into this effort with impressive commitment and personal involvement.

As chair of the Cancer Moonshot Task Force, Vice President Biden oversees a number of Federal agencies that are developing new policies, actions, and collaborations to accelerate progress against cancer. Later today, he will report on their progress and lay out a blueprint to continue the work of the Cancer Moonshot. This summer, he convened a national Cancer Moonshot Summit, bringing together thousands of individuals from the cancer research, clinical care, and patient communities to spur new actions from the private sector. And he laid out the charge for a Blue Ribbon Panel to recommend the most promising research opportunities to pursue as part of the Cancer Moonshot.

As co-chairs of the Cancer Moonshot Blue Ribbon Panel, we have overseen the work of more than 150 researchers, clinicians, population scientists, advocates and more who were brought together to define a set of actionable, transformative research opportunities in cancer prevention and treatment. The Vice President challenged us to find new mechanisms of interaction, sharing, and interdisciplinary collaboration that would fast-track the cancer discovery and development process. He exhorted us to “imagine what you could do in 10 years, and then do it in five” and in so doing lessen the burden of cancer for patients, their families and the generations to come.

Last month, we presented the Blue Ribbon Panel report to the National Cancer Advisory Board (NCAB) whose members are appointed by the President and advise the National Cancer Institute (NCI) on scientific matters. NCAB endorsed the report and offered constructive feedback which we have incorporated into the final Blue Ribbon Panel report, posted on the NCI website, Cancer.gov/brp.

The Blue Ribbon Panel report lays out a set of research recommendations that seek to achieve the Cancer Moonshot’s momentous goal of advancing our understanding of cancer and building upon the foundation of knowledge that the nation’s investment in cancer research of the last four decades has enabled.

Among the recommendations is a call for intensifying research to improve our understanding of why powerful immunotherapies that are transforming cancer treatment work for some but not all patients, and how to extend their almost miraculous results—literally melting away tumors—to many more patients. Another recommendation is to take advantage of advances in computing and information technology, genomics and immunology, to identify new approaches to better understand why tumors develop resistance to therapy.

The recommendations have a strong focus on reducing cancer health disparities in the United States. One recommendation would enable patients from all communities to access and share clinical and molecular data about their cancer and to be matched with the most appropriate medicines or, where necessary, to enroll in the most relevant clinical trials. The proposed network would open doors to all patients, including those with limited socioeconomic means, rural populations, and other medically disadvantaged groups who otherwise might never have access to comprehensive cancer testing and novel treatment.

Beyond treatment, the recommendations highlight the importance of early cancer detection and prevention, including better and broader implementation of proven prevention measures and the development of new ones. The report also has a strong emphasis on cancers of children.

The Blue Ribbon Panel report’s collection of recommendations is exciting and compelling. It holds the promise of significantly contributing to our shared goal of ending cancer as we know it. However, it is now just a set of words on paper. To make these recommendations a reality, we will need to expand our notions of collaboration and data sharing. The management of research projects, involvement of academic, government and industry investigators, and engagement of patients and the public will all need to look different from business as usual if we are to be successful.

As cancer researchers, we have watched our field evolve from a time when cancer was a veritable black box to now, when our understanding of these diseases is highly detailed but still incomplete. The Cancer Moonshot offers us the chance to rapidly accelerate our next phase of progress against cancer. Vice President Biden’s report later today will provide the path necessary to continue the fight against cancer. We can change the course of history. All we need is the will and the follow through to do so.