Obama and Biden’s Moon Shot Initiative aims to cure cancer

WASHINGTON — President Obama announced at his last State of the Union Jan. 13 “a new national effort to [cure cancer]” and put Vice President Joe Biden in charge of the effort.

Biden had already been working with Congress to give the scientists at the National Institutes of Health “the strongest resources they’ve had in over a decade.” This new cancer initiative is named National Cancer Moonshot, in reference to the push that Americans made to put a man on the moon.

February 1, two weeks after his State of the Union, Obama announced plans to call for $1 billion in funding for cancer prevention and research.

The President’s budget was announced on Feb. 9, formally and officially breaking down the $1 billion of funding for the Initiative to include $195 million in new cancer activities at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in the Fiscal Year 2016 and $755 million in mandatory funds in the 2017 Budget for new cancer-related research activities at both NIH and the Food and Drug Administration.

Biden announced the night of the State of the Union he had spent the last several months meeting with “nearly 200 of the world’s top cancer physicians, researchers, and philanthropists.” Biden, who lost his own son to cancer, said the Moonshot Initiative would be comprised of two efforts: increasing resources and bringing cancer fighters together to share information.

According to an online statement from the Office of the White House Press Secretary, a Task Force heading off the Initiative will include the Vice President and the heads of various departments, including the Department of Health and Human Services, the Department of Energy, the Office of Science and Technology Policy, the Food and Drug Administration, the National Cancer Institute (NCI), and the National Institutes of Health (NIH).

One member of the Task force is Dr. Douglas Lowy, MD, Acting Director of the National Cancer Institute. Lowy said in an email that the NCI applauds the “commitment to change the face of cancer as we know it,” and that the Task Force’s responsibilities are clear.

“We have been charged with ensuring that the initiative is science-driven and builds on advances already made,” said Lowy. “An important part of the effort will be identifying current barriers to progress and developing specific ways to better coordinate Federal efforts to support cancer research and care, partnerships with stakeholders, and implementation of findings.”

Another member of the Task Force is the Director of NIH, Francis S. Collins, M.D., Ph.D. In an online statement posted Feb. 2, Collins said that at the first meeting of the White House Cancer Moonshot Task Force the day before, “There was a lot of energy in the room — the kind that comes with a shared desire to make a positive difference in people’s lives and the awareness that the United States has the brainpower and determination to do it. We are, indeed, a nation of innovators.”

Innovators at the MD Anderson Cancer Center at University of Texas have been working on The Moon Shot Program since 2010, long before it became a national movement. Last October, they added six new cancer types to their research, bumping their total to 13 types of cancer.

Jevon Tillman, Health Information Specialist at MD Anderson, said in an email the goal of the Moon Shot Program at MD Anderson is to “dramatically reduce the incidence and mortality of cancer, so that the disease in all its forms is preventable, detectable, treatable, and forgettable.”

Tillman said that the research that MD Anderson will be doing for the Moon Shot Program is in the form of a clinical trial, but that not all clinical trials at MD Anderson are part of the Moon Shot Program.

The name “Moon Shot” has been criticized by some. One New York Times article by domestic correspondent Margot Sanger-Katz on Feb. 13 was against it.

“The name suggests a broad, revolutionary new set of initiatives, but the Biden program’s funding represents a tiny fraction of the current national spending on cancer research,” wrote Sanger-Katz.

Tom Flanagan, Director of Communications Strategy at American Cancer Society, Inc. said it’s safe to draw a comparison.

“If the moon landing sparked progress in space exploration,” said Flanagan, “perhaps this expansion of research dollars could pave the way for the Mars landing – the next gigantic breakthrough – in the fight against cancer.”

Flanagan says the cancer death rate in the US has dropped 22 percent since the 1990s, “so the optimism [about the program] is backed by facts.”

Even with the 22 percent drop and the Moon Shot Initiative in the works, Flanagan says the American Cancer recognizes there is a long way to go.

“While the American Cancer Society is proud of its contributions in the progress in the cancer space, it realizes there is a long way to go because 600,000 American will die of the disease this year. Progress is being made – there is absolute scientific proof that it is – but, realistically, there is not likely going to be a single “cure” for cancer,” says Flanagan. “Victory in this fight may inevitably be reaching a point where all cancers are treated as a manageable chronic disease.”

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