If we can put a man on the moon, why can’t we cure cancer? It’s been forty-five years since President Nixon started the “War on Cancer” by signing the National Cancer Act of 1971, which has since dedicated what is now over $9 billion to creating new cancer centers and funding the National Cancer Institute (NCI). Since then, we have produced notable improvements in our scientific understanding of cancer, treatments such as immunotherapy, and cancer survival rates.
However, the undeniable fact is that over 500,000 people died of cancer in 2016 in the US alone, and 19.3 million new cancer cases are projected to arise every year by 2025. The War on Cancer is far from over. and this has prompted a renewed interest by the government to fund and support cancer research. In his 2016 State of the Union address, President Obama put Vice President Joe Biden in charge of a billion-dollar national initiative to “make America the country that cures cancer once and for all.” Known as the “Cancer Moonshot,” this initiative draws an analogy between discovering the cure to landing the first man on the moon. Cancer Moonshot’s goal is to achieve a decade’s worth of research advancements in five years by accelerating efforts to prevent, diagnose, and treat cancer.
Biden, motivated by the death of his son Beau Biden, who died of brain cancer in 2015, has taken charge of the Cancer Moonshot Task Force created by President Obama. The task force is the first of its kind, bringing together twenty government agencies and departments such as the Department of Defense, the NCI, and the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in a united effort against cancer. It’s responsible for developing detailed recommendations dedicated to improving patient access and care, encouraging development of cancer treatments, and properly investing federal funds. On October 17, 2016, the task force published a report that outlined the 2-year goals of Cancer Moonshot.
The report placed a heavy focus on “Big Data” (analysis of large volumes of data), and encouraged data sharing within the research community. Researchers have historically been reluctant to share data due to fear that others will steal data for publication. Nearly one-third of clinical trial results, for example, are never published in peer-reviewed journals. The secrecy and hoarding of data is a roadblock to advancing cancer research, a vast field that would benefit from big-picture thinking. “The science, data, and research results are trapped in silos, preventing faster progress and greater reach to patients,” Biden said in a post on his Medium channel. To facilitate data sharing, Biden launched a project known as Genomic Data Commons (GDC) aimed toward centralizing genomic data—information about cancer’s genes that would be helpful in a variety of ways, from identifying different subtypes of cancer to investigating genes that allow cancer to become deadly. This data would be gathered from NCI programs and would be made freely accessible to any cancer researcher. Cancer Moonshot additionally hopes to use large-scale patient networks to create molecular profiles of tumors, allowing cancer to be studied and understood at a deeper level to aid the development of more effective treatments.
In early December 2016, Congress passed the 21st Century Cures Act, a bill that allocated funds to national initiatives like Obama’s Precision Medicine Initiative, the BRAIN initiative, and anti-opioid efforts. Cancer Moonshot was awarded $1.8 million dollars. Biden himself called or met with almost twenty members of the Senate to garner support of the bill. The near-unanimous Senate and House vote is a product of sweeping bipartisan support of the anti-cancer initiative.
Despite overwhelming government support, however, some still express skepticism that Cancer Moonshot is going to achieve its ambitious goals. A billion dollars is just a fraction of the money needed to bring a drug to market—according to a 2014 report published by the Tufts Center for the Study of Drug Development that pegs the cost of drug development at $2.6 billion. A New York Times article expressed disapproval at the term “moonshot” to refer to curing cancer, arguing that it is both an inaccurate and misleading comparison. The moon landing was a matter of developing the technologies, not discovering the science, whereas cancer has yet to be scientifically solved. In many ways, cancer is more of a mystery than outer space.
In many ways, cancer is more of a mystery than outer space.
It is no secret that cancer is a complicated disease. The term “cancer” is itself an umbrella term encompassing over 100 different diseases, each one having its own subtypes, causing the cancer panacea to be incredibly difficult to find. Adding onto the problem of cancer’s complexity is the problem that the field of cancer research is incredibly decentralized. Researchers often focused on independent discoveries in niche areas, rather than thinking of the bigger picture, causing research to stall in many areas instead of moving forward. Just as researchers have done in the past with the human genome project, an international research endeavor that successfully mapped the entire human genome, so researchers must come together now in a concerted effort to make advancements in cancer research. If, through Cancer Moonshot, the mindset of cancer researchers can turn toward collaboration and broadened thinking, then that will be an achievement in itself.