Blue Ribbon Panel of Advisors Announced for Biden Cancer Moonshot Initiative

Blue Ribbon PanelEarlier 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 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


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Join the Discussion

5 comments so far.

  • [Avatar for nat scientist]
    nat scientist
    April 8, 2016 04:36 pm

    The term “Moonshot” was absolutely not about discovery or invention, it was pure technological pursuit of Wernher Von Braun’s idea. It was however, about USA-USSR politics in April May 1961 and on the heels of Yuri Gargarin, and could be accelerated toward a known target with incremental metrics at every stage. This is directing money to the establishment andlarge machine manufacturers which has no such obvious incremental metric, and lots of chiefs who have other agendas. The analogy is a fail, but the politics and the money are real. From the persistent tone of this done deal, why bother this notice indeed.

    for the analogy compare, respectfully submitted:

  • [Avatar for Ken]
    April 7, 2016 09:03 pm

    “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 are indeed many researchers who take this view that “cancer” is essentially multiple diseases, as opposed to essentially one disease. It is an understandable and defensible view, but also an eminently debatable one.

    I would say that the current structure of cancer research funding is set up to overwhelmingly support that perspective, so it makes sense to try to also have something that tries taking a more “unified” approach.

  • [Avatar for step back]
    step back
    April 7, 2016 07:14 pm


    I think it comes from being on the outside looking in on the oncology field.

    If I pretended that I didn’t know anything about computers I might opine that AI (Artificial Intelligence) has come a long way and that thanks to recent “breakthroughs” Siri and Cortana both pass the Turing test with ease. Anyone who thinks otherwise just hasn’t been keeping up. 😉 (end sarcasm)

  • [Avatar for steven]
    April 7, 2016 10:59 am

    step back,

    Don’t bother fighting with Gene on this one. It is not an isolated incident that he can not handle an opinion differing from his own. Of course he is mischaracterizing what we all said. In fact, I guarantee that the majority of people on the panel agree with what people actually stated in the comments to the last blog. It is funny he says we apparently are not aware of the current state of research, when multiple commentators said they were in the area of cancer research for years. He reminds me of certain politicians when you try to present another viewpoint to them. Childish mischaracterization- he should be ashamed.

  • [Avatar for step back]
    step back
    April 6, 2016 09:08 pm

    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.


    With due respect I think you are mischaracterizing what we said.

    We were not saying that incredibly bright and gifted people (**) are working hard on the problem and you never know when one of them might stumble across a truly game changing break through.

    What we were saying is that the politician’s view point of how science works is skewed beyond repair. The notion of “moonshot” and merely muttering magic words like “yes we can” and “apply it” (the abstract idea to the geriatrics’s generic computer) show an overly simplistic comprehension of what is going on.

    The universe is an incredibly complex and unfriendly place (it is not here to serve us and reveal to us its “laws”). It is mostly by sheer luck that our species has survived this far and no guarantees going forward, especially with nuclear armed demagogues running amok. So let’s not get too hubiristic with “moonshots” and yes we can. Let’s be way more humble about our chances at success. We need all the help we can get, including that provided by diligent inventors hard at work all over the world. We don’t need to be bad mouthing them by labeling them as abstraction-creating trolls and by destroying the American patent system.

    ** BTW, I know one of the persons listed on that Blue Ribbon List and yes that person is truly gifted and brilliant in their field, but does not promise unrealistic outcomes. Mother Nature always bats last and always wins.