Health

What This Cancer Moon Shot Really Means

Curing the disease gets a laser focus after a grand SOTU pledge

When cancer strikes at the heart of any family, the war becomes personal.

It occurs in every community across this country. The American Cancer Society and the Komen Foundation were once the gold standards in terms of organizations to donate to or to tune to for support. Those weren’t enough, however. There was no way they could be, as people increasingly looked to make very specific strides within the confines of their own cancer diagnosis.

The result, over time, has meant a lot of money given by individuals and used for donations, grants, research projects, professorships and patient advocacy work. Private businesses have been launched from labs in an effort to advance the research even faster. The federal government has continued to fund a search for the elusive cure. But where has that left any of us?

Not far along enough, if you ask those facing a cancer diagnosis today, or the loved ones of those who are lost to the disease every single day.

The fight has now become very personal for Vice President Joe Biden, who lost his son Beau Biden, 46, to brain cancer in 2015. With that loss, it appears, comes a new dawn for cancer research.

“Today, cancer is the leading cause of death worldwide. And that’s only expected to increase in the coming decades — unless we make more progress today. I know we can,” Biden wrote in a poignant blog post on Medium.

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During his State of the Union address Tuesday night, President Obama announced Biden will now be in charge of carrying out the “moon shot” to cure cancer. He said Biden has already been working with Congress to give scientists at the National Institutes of Health the strongest resources they have had in over a decade.

Let’s start with that “moon shot” term. It is pulled directly from the work specifically happening at M.D. Anderson (MDA) Cancer Center in Houston, Texas, where Biden’s son was treated.

Dr. Ron DePinho, the president of MDA, says he established the Moon Shot Program in 2012 to accelerate declines in cancer mortality across several major cancer types. The name, of course, was inspired by America’s drive a generation ago to put a man on the moon. MDA’s program aimed to “make a giant leap for patients” that would rapidly and dramatically reduce the suffering and death caused by cancer.

By building this new organizational paradigm of multidisciplinary teams and platforms focused on execution, DePhino says knowledge available today can be converted into preventive measures and life-saving therapeutic advances for cancer patients in the U.S. and worldwide. 

Related: Cancer Battle Far from Over

This program is now inspiring change wherever cancer, cancer research, treatment and hope for those facing a diagnosis are concerned. “Knowledge and technology have converged, enabling researchers to make a decisive assault on these deadly diseases,” says DePinho. “We also can bend the arc of cancer through concerted efforts in prevention and early detection, as up to half of all cancers can be prevented and catching cancer at its earliest stages offers markedly improved survival.” 

Of a cure for cancer, the MDA website says:  “It’s closer than you think. What’s learned from these initial cancer ‘moon shots’ will ultimately lead to cures for all types of the disease.”

At M.D. Anderson alone, rapid progress in curing advanced cancers is being made by harnessing the capability of the largest clinical trials engine in the world to test many targeted therapies, including those that reawaken the immune system. Of its 1,200 active clinical trials with more than 11,000 patients per year, MDA’s Cancer Moon Shots Program has launched 125 immuno-oncology trials across all major cancer types involving nearly 6,000 patients.

“While genomic testing and targeted therapies are very exciting and have shown clear advances in some instances, recent advances in immunotherapy have been truly remarkable. The use of check point inhibitors, CAR T-cells and other vaccine and cellular therapy approaches are showing dramatic improvement in the degree and durability of  responses in diseases that had been highly refractory to treatment such as melanoma,” Dr. George Wilding, vice provost for clinical and interdisciplinary research at M.D. Anderson, told LifeZette.

M.D. Anderson, however, isn’t the only research facility fostering strides in research and treatment. Those strides are happening at labs across the country and the world, in academic institutions, in pharmaceutical labs and in new partnerships formed between researchers working on a wide variety of diseases.

Related: When a Child Has Cancer

Vice President Biden said he has met with nearly 200 of the world’s top cancer physicians, researchers, and philanthropists over the past several months.

In June 2015, Biden helped the Obama administration secure a $2 billion increase in funding for the National Institutes of Health from Congress, the first significant increase the NIH has seen in over a decade. Some $264 million of those dollars are earmarked for the National Cancer Institute.

Over the next year, plans are to continue to meet with researchers, doctors, patients, and philanthropists to figure out the best way to fund research, to increase collaboration between experts fighting the disease, and to do a better job of compiling information that could lead to a cure for the world’s most deadly disease. Biden said he wants everyone sharing information in the effort to end cancer as we know it.

While many scratch their heads and wonder why this isn’t already happening, the renewed focus on the disease offers hope.

The federal government will do everything it possibly can  —  through funding, targeted incentives, and increased private-sector coordination  —  to support research and enable progress. We’ll encourage leading cancer centers to reach unprecedented levels of cooperation, so we can learn more about this terrible disease and how to stop it in its tracks,” wrote Biden.

“This is the golden era of cancer research,” DePinho told LifeZette. “Our team of world-leading cancer experts, along with many others in the field, continue to confer with Vice President Biden about the scope and potential of a national cancer moon shot. We are encouraged by his leadership and look forward to working together on this global humanitarian endeavor. Patients and families around the world are counting on us to end cancer.”

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