The Cancer Moonshot 2020 Program to Bring Together Researchers, Drugmakers

During the last State of the Union address of his administration, President Obama announced the Cancer Moonshot 2020 initiative, which focuses on finding potential cures for cancer, emphasizing the use of immunotherapy and precision medicine. This initiative will be headed by Vice President Joe Biden. Since the announcement, Vice President Biden has met with a number of doctors, researchers, and academics in the United States and also took his efforts abroad by convening with global cancer experts at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland.

Experts in the field point to areas of improvement that could be game-changers in the decades-old “war on cancer.” One area is large databases of diagnostic and treatment information from all cancer patients that clinicians and researchers could use to study different disease types, in particular to identify drug targets. While several organizations have already launched smaller databases, there is a push for the government to create or fund one that is large-scale and national. Genomic testing of tumors is another area of importance, though experts have noted a need to guarantee insurance coverage for these assays – including from Medicare.

Another suggestion is for pharmaceutical companies to work together to develop more advanced targeted therapies. A cooperative effort from Amgen, Celgene, and other smaller biotechnology companies was recently announced as the National Immunotherapy Coalition, with a goal of quickly testing various drug combinations. A challenge lies in the many possible combinations of drug treatments, and the time it would take to design clinical trials of each combination. The coalition announced that it would have access to 60 different cancer drugs and will enroll 20,000 patients by 2020 to run early-stage trials of drug combinations for nearly 20 types of cancer.

Still, experts in the field say that the notion of finding an all-encompassing cure for cancer is misleading and outdated. “Cancer, we’ve learned, is far more complex than we’ve ever imagined,” said José Baselga, MD, PhD, president of the American Association for Cancer Research and chief medical officer at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York, in an article by The Washington Post. “Every single tumor is different.”

Inadequate funding poses another roadblock in cancer research. “At this point, funding matters. When you know what you want to do, when you have a roadmap ahead of you, funding lets you get there faster,” said Dr. Baselga in an article from The New York Times.

Sources: Associated Press, “Launching cancer MoonShot, Biden says politics impeding cure,” January 15, 2016; The Washington Post, “Cancer ‘moonshot’ will actually be a collection of smaller initiatives,” January 12, 2016; The New York Times, “Drug companies to try a unified front against cancer,” January 11, 2016; The New York Times, “‘MoonShot’ to cure cancer, to be led by Biden, relies on outmoded view of disease,” January 13, 2016.