Bob GattyWashington-Back in January, in his State of the Union address, President Obama launched an initiative to cure cancer by the year 2020 and announced what he called the “National Cancer Moonshot” to make that happen.
The initiative was in reference to Vice President Joe Biden’s Rose Garden speech last year in which he called for a “moonshot” to cure the disease that led to the death of his son, Beau. So, President Obama put Biden in charge of the initiative.
A new White House Cancer Moonshot Task Force will lead the effort. Composed of senior administration officials, including five Cabinet secretaries, top economic advisers, and leaders of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the FDA, it held its first meeting Feb. 1.
Despite its high-level backing, securing additional funding for the program may prove difficult in an election year, and one urologic cancer expert said the goal of curing cancer by 2020 “isn’t going to happen.”
A White House fact sheet, “Investing in the National Cancer Moonshot,” said the program will be launched with a $1 billion initiative to provide funding for researchers to accelerate the development of new cancer detection and treatments, including:
• $195 million in new cancer activities at NIH in FY 2016
• another $755 million requested from Congress for 2017 in mandatory funds for new cancer-related research activities at both NIH and the FDA
• increased cancer research investments at the Departments of Defense and Veterans Affairs, including funding centers of excellence focused on specific cancers and conducting large longitudinal studies to help determine risk factors and enhance treatment.
Within the Department of Health and Human Services, the White House said investments will support “cutting-edge research opportunities” such as:
• prevention and cancer vaccine development
• early cancer detection
• cancer immunotherapy and combination therapy
• genomic analysis of tumor and surrounding cells
• enhanced data sharing
• an oncology center of excellence
• pediatric cancer initiatives
• Vice President’s Exceptional Opportunities in Cancer Research Fund, focused on high-risk, high-return research identified by the research community.
“The National Cancer Moonshot requires a whole-of-government approach, marshaling resources from across the federal government to address this singular goal,” the fact sheet states. “Over time, other agencies will make new investments in this effort, beginning with the Departments of Defense and Veterans Affairs.”
The administration said it wants to channel more funds into the program over time.
“Together, these investments represent an initial down-payment on the National Cancer Moonshot,” the White House said. “Over the coming months, the administration looks forward to working with Congress to launch the next phase of investments, providing the resources needed to double our rate of progress in this historic fight.”
And there is the rub.
It is a bitterly contested election year, and Republicans who control both the House and Senate are showing few signs of being willing to work with the White House on anything. Perhaps this will be an exception; that remains to be seen.
However, President Obama and Vice President Biden generated lots of positive press and perhaps their initiative actually will lead to something real. But there are skeptics.
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For example, Derek Raghavan, MD, PhD, a medical oncologist whose expertise includes prostate and other genitourinary cancers, has issued a word of caution. He is president of Carolinas HealthCare System’s Levine Cancer Institute in Charlotte, NC.
In a MedPage Today video, Dr. Raghavan said that while additional cancer research funding is welcome news, “For some of my colleagues in science to jump on the bandwagon and create moon shots and a challenge to be done by 2020, it’s just ridiculous.”
In fact, said Dr. Raghavan, “It isn’t going to happen. Cancer is a bunch of diseases, the population is aging and changing, there are new threats to us all the time. And so, it’s much more sensible to think about the current presidential challenge to make progress, not put a finite time on it, and actually focus our efforts in a more sensible way.”
Dr. Raghavan expressed concern about a lack of constancy in the supply of anti-cancer drugs, even though he’s been hearing for years that the supply “is going to be regularized once and for all.”
“I want the government to take a more active stance in the cancer battle, but as partners. And they have to do the legislative pieces to allow us to be successful and to provide life-saving drugs that keep seeming to run out,” he said.
There are only a few months left in the Obama-Biden administration, but the vice president seems determined to make the most of them and to get the “Moonshot” program off at least onto the launching pad. However, the extent to which partisan election year politics will slow down whatever momentum can be generated remains to be seen.
“As the President said in the State of the Union, we can do this for the loved ones we’ve lost-and the families we can still save,” Biden said following the initial Moonshot Task Force meeting. “I know we can do this.”