On January 12, 2016, in his State of the Union address, President Obama announced a new federal initiative, the Moonshot to cure cancer. He assigned Vice President Biden, who lost his son Beau to brain cancer on May 31, 2015, to chair this program, and budgeted $1 billion of new funds to accomplish the goals.
What has happened since? The president created the White House Cancer Moonshot task force by executive action on January 28, 2016, chaired by Joe Biden. The EVP is a cancer survivor, Greg Simon, and the group includes heads of executive branch departments and agencies (including heads of Departments of Commerce, Defense, Energy, Health and Human Services, VA, and OMB, Science and Technology, Food and Drug Administration - FDA, National Cancer Institute - NCI, National Institutes of Health - NIH, and National Science Foundation -NSF). This is a powerful group but it will take a long time to get everyone to agree on a plan. The first meeting took place almost immediately, on February 1.
The Cancer Moonshot Task Force will have input from the National Cancer Advisory Board. And the board will be advised by a 28 member recently formed Blue Ribbon Panel appointed on April 4, 2016, which will be composed of cancer leaders from national comprehensive cancer centers with interests in molecular changes in cancer, childhood cancer, brain cancer, leukemia, cancer immunology and immunotherapy, and geriatric oncology. Also on the panel are representatives of cancer advocate groups, the pharmaceutical industry, and experts in information technology. The size of this group also means a long time to recommend a plan.
Why are so many people involved in this effort? Such a large group on the advisory panels and task force is necessary to formulate a detailed plan to accomplish the broad goals of the program. As charged by the president, these goals include increasing cancer prevention, early detection, treatment and cure; improving patient access and care; increasing scientific access to new research, data and computation; developing cancer treatments; identifying regulatory barriers; optimizing use of federal resources; and developing public-private partnerships. That's quite a quest.
This initiative is quite a bit more important than just congress increasing a budget for federal cancer agencies. The Cancer Moonshot has the powerful backing of the White House, both the president and vice president, with a task force, which will undoubtedly also focus additional resources of all departments and agencies that can possibly improve cancer care. By including so many institutions, groups, and companies on the panel, there is every likelihood that innovative proposals will be funded that will improve cancer care.
But beyond the dollars being committed, the president's setting goals for the Cancer Moonshot will immediately result in increased focus on pilot programs that improve access, increase clinical trials, and result in shared results of data to improve care. At my institution (City of Hope), we have already begun planning new patient programs preparing for the Cancer Moonshot which will make new treatments available to our patients. And at least one cooperative research group is seeking (and funding) new projects related to the Cancer Moonshot initiative.
Here are Dr. Cary's tips for you based on the Cancer Moonshot.
• If you do not have cancer, remember that there are new advances in cancer prevention, screening, and gene testing to measure your cancer risk. Be sure to ask your doctor about these, and if she/he does not know how to make these available to you, get a second opinion (see my website and book Surviving American Medicine for advice on how and where to get these consultations).
• If you have cancer, ask your physician about the newest treatments. Especially, ask about targeted therapy or precision medicine (drugs that target gene changes in your own cancer cells which the laboratory can identify). Also ask if the new immunotherapy drugs could be right for you.
• Never forget to ask if there is a clinical trial, which could make a promising newer treatment available to you. You might have to go to a comprehensive or university cancer center to access these trials. But with the Cancer Moonshot program, these centers will be making such trials available more widely through their regional cancer networks, just as we have at City of Hope. To find out more about clinical trials, go to the websites of the National Institutes of Health or Surviving American Medicine.
The complex White House Cancer Moonshot will bring more programs, trials, access, and coordination. But more importantly, it can bring you better care and a better chance of cure today.