Earlier this week the National Cancer Institute (NCI), which is part of the National Institutes of Health, announced a Blue Ribbon Panel of scientific experts, cancer leaders, and patient advocates that will work to inform the scientific direction and goals for Vice President Joe Biden’s National Cancer Moonshot Initiative.
The so-called “cancer moonshot initiative” originated during President Obama’s 2016 State of the Union address to Congress. During his speech the President announced a new national effort to eliminate the life-threatening conditions of abnormally growing cells we commonly know as cancer. In charge of this new cancer moonshot, as the President put it, is Vice President Joe Biden. Vice President Biden already recently worked to secure about $264 million in funding for the National Cancer Institute in a Congressional spending bill passed in December 2015. This mission to defeat cancer will no doubt be a labor of love and deep commitment for the Vice President given that his son Beau Biden lost his battle with brain cancer in May 2016.
A final report by the White House Cancer Moonshot Task Force , chaired by Vice President Biden, will be produced and delivered to President Barack Obama by December 31, 2016. Obviously, that will leave no time for President Obama to take action on the recommendations, but hopefully whoever prevails in the November elections pick up these recommendations moving forward.
In a past article on this topic there was a healthy amount of skepticism among readers, and there has also been a healthy amount of skepticism by critics beyond the pages of IPWatchdog.com. The main criticism seems to be that there is a belief that a cancer moonshot initiative is a fool’s errand because it will be necessary to have dozens, or perhaps hundreds, of individual cancer moonshots.
The primary argument against the cancer moonshot initiative seems to go something like this: Cancer is a catchall term that describes many different diseases. Nothing we will learn fighting one form of cancer will be transferable to fighting or treating another form of cancer. There just isn’t enough money to go around to try and eradicate cancer. Therefore, the cancer moonshot is a waste of time and money.
Simply put, these critics of the cancer moonshot initiative are wrong. Although they make these statements with such authority, are apparently not familiar the current state of cancer research and the exciting new discoveries that researchers are making that suggest paradigm shifting breakthroughs could be within sight.
“Thanks to advances in science, we are now in a historically unique position to make profound improvements in the way we treat, detect, and prevent cancer,” said NIH Director Francis S. Collins, M.D., Ph.D. He is correct, and here is why.
Dr. David Agus is an oncologist who is a Professor of Medicine and Engineering at the University of Southern California, and the author of The Lucky Years: How to Thrive in the Brave New World of Health. He recently explained to Fareed Zakaria in an interview on CNN that cancer therapies and treatments have dramatically changed in recent years. For example, when describing the miraculous recover of former President Jimmy Carter, Agus explained that all cancers essentially block the immune system from attacking by releasing what he referred to in general terms as a “don’t eat me signal.” The treatment that President Carter was given, in lay terms, suppressed this “don’t eat me signal,” which allowed his own T-cells to destroy the cancer. According to Agus, this works time and time again for multiple types of cancer, including kidney cancer, melanoma, and even some types of lung cancer.
Agus also cites big data for being able to make associations that physicians could never have made independently on their own. For example, women with ovarian cancer who also happen to be taking a beta blocker for high blood pressure live about a year-and-a-half longer than do women not on a beta blocker. Studies are underway to confirm what the big data analysis shows and to help understand why.
According to Agus, “we’re at that inflection point. Literally, things are changing.”
In any event, the panel of experts assembled by the NCI will serve as a working group of the presidentially appointed National Cancer Advisory Board (NCAB) and will provide scientific guidance from thought-leaders in the cancer community.
“This Blue Ribbon Panel will ensure that, as NIH allocates new resources through the Moonshot, decisions will be grounded in the best science,” said the Vice President. “I look forward to working with this panel and many others involved with the Moonshot to make unprecedented improvements in prevention, diagnosis, and treatment of cancer.”
Over the next several months, the panel will consider how to advance the themes that have been proposed for the initiative. The themes include the development of cancer vaccines, highly sensitive approaches to early detection, advances in immunotherapy and combination therapies, single-cell genomic profiling of cancer cells and cells in the tumor microenvironment, enhanced data sharing, and new approaches to the treatment of pediatric cancers.
The members of the Blue Ribbon Panel are:
Tyler Jacks, Ph.D. (Co-Chair)
Chair, National Cancer Advisory Board, and Director, Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge
Tyler Jacks, Ph.D. (Co-Chair)
Professor and Deputy Director for Translational Research, Sidney Kimmel Comprehensive Cancer Center, Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, Baltimore
Dinah Singer, Ph.D. (Co-Chair)
Acting Deputy Director and Division of Cancer Biology Director, National Cancer Institute, Bethesda, Maryland
Peter Adamson, M.D.
Professor and Director, Experimental Therapeutics in Oncology, The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia
James Allison, Ph.D.
Professor and Chair of Immunology, University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center, Houston
David Arons, J.D.
Chief Executive Officer, National Brain Tumor Society, Newton, Massachusetts
Mary Beckerle, Ph.D.
CEO and Director, Huntsman Cancer Institute, Salt Lake City
Mitch Berger, M.D.
Professor and Chair, Department of Neurological Surgery, University of California, San Francisco
Jeff Bluestone, Ph.D.
A.W. And Mary Margaret Clausen Distinguished Professor, University of California, San Francisco
Mikael Dolsten, M.D., Ph.D.
President, Pfizer Worldwide Research and Development, and Executive Vice President, Pfizer, Inc., New York City
James Downing, M.D.
President and CEO, St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, Memphis, Tennessee
Levi Garraway, M.D., Ph.D.
Associate Professor of Medicine, Harvard Medical School, and Assistant Professor of Medicine, Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, Boston
Gad Getz, Ph.D.
Director, Cancer Genome Computational Analysis and Institute Member, Broad Institute, Director, Bioinformatics Program, MGH Cancer Center and Department of Pathology, Associate Professor of Pathology, Harvard Medical School, Paul C. Zamecnik Chair in Oncology, MGH Cancer Center
Laurie Glimcher, M.D.
Professor of Medicine and Dean, Weill Cornell Medical College, and Incoming President and CEO, Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, Boston
Lifang Hou, M.D., Ph.D.
Associate Professor of Preventive Medicine, Robert H. Lurie Comprehensive Cancer Center, Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine, Chicago
Neal Kassell, M.D.
Professor of Neurosurgery, University of Virginia, Charlottesville
Maria Elena Martinez, Ph.D.
Professor of Family Medicine and Public Health, Reducing Cancer Disparities Program, UC San Diego Moores Cancer Center
Deborah Mayer, Ph.D., R.N.
Professor of Adult and Geriatric Health, University of North Carolina School of Nursing, and Director of Cancer Survivorship, UNC Lineberger Comprehensive Cancer Center, Chapel Hill
Edith Mitchell, M.D., F.A.C.P
Professor of Medical Oncology and Associate Director for Diversity Services, Sidney Kimmel Cancer Center at Thomas Jefferson University, Philadelphia
Augusto Ochoa, M.D.
Professor of Pediatrics and Director, Stanley S. Scott Cancer Center, Louisiana State University, New Orleans
Jennifer Pietenpol, Ph.D.
Professor of Oncology, Professor of Biochemistry, and Director, Vanderbilt-Ingram Cancer Center, Nashville
Angel Pizarro, M.S.E.
Technical Business Development Manager, Amazon Web Services Scientific Computing and Research Computing, Philadelphia
Barbara Rimer, Dr.P.H.
Alumni Distinguished Professor and Dean, University of North Carolina Gillings School of Global Public Health, Chapel Hill
Charles Sawyers, M.D.
Chair, Human Oncology and Pathogenesis Program, Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, and Investigator, Howard Hughes Medical Institute, New York City
Ellen Sigal, Ph.D.
Founder and Chair, Friends of Cancer Research, Washington, D.C.
Patrick Soon-Shiong, M.B.B.Ch.
Founder, Chair, and CEO, NantWorks LLC, Los Angeles
Chi Van Dang, M.D., Ph.D.
Professor of Medicine and Director, Abramson Cancer Center, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia
Wai-Kwan Alfred Yung, M.D.
Professor of Neuro-Oncology and holder of the Margaret and Ben Love Chair of Clinical Cancer Care, University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center, Houston