The idea of the Cancer Moonshot was first conceived in October 2015, when Vice President Joe Biden gave a speech calling for more attention to be given to developing a cure for cancer. “I believe that we need a moonshot in this country to cure cancer,” Biden said from the Rose Garden at the White House. “The president and I have already been working hard on increasing funding for research and development, because there are so many breakthroughs just on the horizon in science and medicine, the things that are just about to happen.”
Over the last year, Biden has been working toward exactly that goal. In January, President Obama announced the launch of the Cancer Moonshot Initiative in his State of the Union Address before Congress. As part of the address, he said that Biden would be taking the lead on the effort to bring resources toward developing public and private partnerships in an effort to achieve a decade’s worth of cancer research in only half the time. Since then, the Cancer Moonshot Task Force has established a number of working groups and initiated projects designed to spur collaborations between government agencies, nonprofit organizations, and even private businesses, all with the goal of developing a cure for cancer.
In October, Vice President Biden delivered his report on the Cancer Moonshot Initiative to the President, combined with a full report of the recommendations that the Task Force and its various working groups had put together for the ongoing work of the project. One of the biggest concerns that the Vice President expressed, however, is securing funding for the initiative over the next four years. Given the bipartisan support for the Cancer Moonshot, expectations are that it will be funded eventually, but as with so many political issues, there are no certainties, especially as each of the two parties negotiates budgets and spending bills for the upcoming year.
Given the overarching goal of the moonshot – to make ten years’ worth of progress in cancer research in only five years – many cancer patients are hopeful, yet still cautious as to what it means for them. The five-year survival rate is one of the standard statistics by which many people measure their progress with respect to cancer, and the reality is that there are a lot of people who have cancer now who will not live even five years to see that doubled progress at which the Cancer Moonshot is aiming. In fact, the majority of stomach cancer patients are diagnosed in late stages, and the 5-year survival rate is just 5%. Early diagnosis is critically important to saving lives.
Nonetheless, those who have cancer now can be hopeful, because even today we are already seeing significant progress in areas related to cancer, from prevention and detection, to treatment, recovery, and follow-up care. The Vice President’s progress report outlined a variety of new collaborations, including partnerships from a number of private companies that are already helping cancer patients in unexpected ways.
This is especially important for specific types of cancer such as stomach cancer, as well as rare forms of cancer like mesothelioma, which can develop in the peritoneum (the lining of the abdomen) and spread to other abdominal organs, including the stomach. As research and data is shared and made more open – a situation that is one of the primary goals of the Cancer Moonshot – treatments that work for one form of cancer can be reviewed for other types of cancer as well. Even in cases where treatments work for one type of cancer but not another, it gives doctors and researchers more examples to examine and more data to inform future treatment programs.
“We will make greater progress in finding better treatments and finding a cure if we work together and pool resources,” said Beth Lambert, a cancer patient and former Board member of No Stomach For Cancer who attended Vice President Joe Biden’s speech in which he presented his progress report. “As a patient advocacy group, No Stomach For Cancer wants to improve the quality of life for patients and their caregivers now or as soon as possible. Working together can speed up progress.”
Perhaps one of the most exciting areas of research for emerging cancer treatments is the area of immunotherapy. Through this form of treatment, doctors try to improve the body’s immune system to respond in ways that fight the invading cancer more effectively. There are many different approaches to immunotherapy, and they may have value in treating different forms of cancer or for different patients who may not respond well to traditional treatments like chemotherapy, surgery, and radiation.
One of the ways the Cancer Moonshot is helping is by creating more opportunities for sharing research and data, which can reinforce the development of new immunotherapy treatments for different types of cancer. For example, treatment for mesothelioma – a rare and usually fatal form of cancer caused by asbestos that can develop in the lining of the lungs, heart, or abdomen – has shown some positive progress when it comes to immunotherapy. One such immunotherapy drug is bevacizumab (Avastin), which halts the development of new blood vessels that can feed fast-growing tumors. Bevacizumab is also being studied in relation to stomach cancer, and according to findings reported at the 2015 ASCO Conference, this immunotherapy drug has been shown to improve survival rates in stomach and esophageal cancers. By combining results from these various studies on this new type of treatment, hopefully doctors and researchers can come up with even better ways to treat both types of cancer – and others besides.
This synergy is part of the great promise of the Cancer Moonshot Initiative as a whole, and examples of it can be seen throughout the Task Force’s progress report. By working together to bring more research and data to the forefront of the fight against cancer, more and better tools and techniques can be developed. Even now, we are seeing some progress, and the hope is that in five years that progress will be much further along than we could have believed had the project never been started.
The Cancer Moonshot is a mission that all of us can help achieve. To learn more about the initiative, click here. To learn more about how you can raise awareness for mesothelioma and support the Mesothelioma Cancer Alliance, click here. To learn more about how you can raise awareness for stomach cancer and support No Stomach Fro Cancer, click here Raise Awareness.