Opinion: What A Cancer Cure ‘Moon Shot’ Might Look Like

During his final State of the Union address, President Obama announced a new national effort to cure cancer. He said Vice President Joe Biden, who lost his 46-year-old son to cancer last year, would lead the effort. (Evan Vucci/AP)

During his final State of the Union address, President Obama announced a new national effort to cure cancer. He said Vice President Joe Biden, who lost his 46-year-old son to cancer last year, would lead the initiative. (Evan Vucci/AP)

In his final State of the Union address Tuesday night, President Obama called for a historic new effort to find a cure for cancer, a “moon shot.”  

“For the loved ones we’ve all lost, for the family we can still save, let’s make America the country that cures cancer once and for all,” Obama said in naming Vice President Joe Biden to lead the effort. 

So what might such a massive endeavor look like? Here, Barrett Rollins, M.D., Ph.D., chief scientific officer at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, offers his vision:

President Obama’s call for a new national effort against cancer — a “moon shot” — comes at a most opportune time. Cancer research has advanced significantly and now genomic analysis of tumors can reveal the specific DNA changes that drive cancer growth.

Our patients at Dana-Farber/Brigham and Women’s Cancer Center and Dana-Farber/Boston Children’s Cancer and Blood Disorders Center, through the Profile research project, are benefiting from this — using the powerful technique of next-generation sequencing, scanning more than 300 cancer-related genes in every patient’s tumor to look for abnormalities. In a growing number of cases, the DNA changes can be targeted by precision therapies such as designer drugs that block overactive growth pathways. Often it will take combinations of targeted drugs to halt cancer progression, and many studies of these combinations are underway.

At the same time, there’s enormous promise in the field of immunotherapy. We’ve learned how to boost the body’s natural defenses against cancer and how to remove the molecular “brakes” that cancer cells exploit to hide from immune soldier cells and hinder their attack on tumors. Drugs that help the immune system fight cancer are coming quickly to the market, and there is promising research on related strategies such as cancer vaccines and genetic manipulation of immune cells to recognize cancer cells in the body.

Last week some of my Dana-Farber scientist colleagues and I joined a delegation of other leading cancer researchers assembled by the American Association for Cancer Research to discuss this initiative with Vice President Joe Biden’s staff. They were looking to experts to suggest some high-value, near-term actions, and we made two recommendations.

First, researchers are collecting enormous amounts of data from genomic tumor analysis — data that can be linked to information on how a patient’s cancer responds to targeted drugs. But if we’re going to make progress we must compile data from thousands of patients with many types of cancer to help discern patterns so that we can accelerate the development of precision cancer medicine. Today, much of this information resides in unconnected databases around the country. The Office of the National Coordinator for Health Information Technology can be a central repository for these data.

Second, panels of tests such as the kind that we do with Profile, can help improve patient outcomes, but they are costly. Currently these expenses are mainly being covered by philanthropy and institutional funds or out-of-pocket payment by patients, but this can’t continue. We hope that Vice President Biden can address this important issue so that these tests are covered by Medicare and other third-party payers. Now is the time for insurers to step up and make cancer gene testing widely accessible.

This is an exciting time to be a cancer researcher. We’ve made so much progress and we see the promise of what’s ahead. Together — researchers, academics, insurers, pharma and government — will make this moon shot successful and alleviate the suffering of so many patients and families. This is our challenge and opportunity.

For more on Obama’s cancer cure initiative, check out Here & Now’s coverage and more details from Stat on the effort led by Biden.

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