On January 12, 2016 President Barack Obama announced the establishment of a Cancer Moonshot Initiative – an ambitious goal for the country to reenergize its efforts in the fight against cancer and shorten the time it will take to find a cure. The initiative – led by Vice President Joe Biden—aims to make more treatments available to more patients, improve our ability to prevent cancer, and detect it at an earlier stage. This is especially true for rare cancers such as mesothelioma.
Biden, who tragically lost his son to brain cancer last year, first spoke about a cancer moonshot in October. Very few Americans do not have their own personal story of a family member, friend, or colleague who has been diagnosed with cancer. In 2016 more than 1.6 million new cases of cancer will be diagnosed, and in the same year cancer will kill an estimated 600,000 Americans.
Reigniting the fight against cancer
To kickstart the Cancer Moonshot Initiative, the Whitehouse announced a $1 billion investment and assembled a taskforce to help carry out its goals. Chaired by Vice President Biden, the group has been given the incredible responsibility of making the goals of the cancer moonshot a reality.
By bringing together federal agencies, private sector businesses, philanthropists, scientists, patient advocacy groups and charities, the task force will support different cancer research initiatives in order to progress cancer research and its treatment. At the heart of the matter the taskforce hopes to reach its goals by cutting down barriers between government, industry, scientists, and researchers to increase the flow of information between them – or as Biden put it, to ''break down silos and bring all the cancer fighters together.”
Hopefully, by removing these barriers to progress the country will be able to make a decade's worth of advancements in cancer prevention, diagnosis, and treatment in just 5 years.
Making goals a reality
While the goals of the Cancer Moonshot Initiative are ambitious, it is important to remember that cancer is not a single disease. There are over 100 different types of cancer each with their own unique features, triggers, vulnerabilities and mechanisms of action. For example the scientific understanding that is required to treat pancreatic cancer is different to the understanding needed to treat breast cancer or leukemia.
Furthermore not all cancers receive the same amount of attention and scrutiny. The more common a cancer is, the more people know about it – but that means that lesser known cancers like mesothelioma, which affects about 3,000 people each year, sometimes get overlooked.
The Cancer Moonshot Initiative gives us a chance to address this inequality. The Blue Ribbon Panel (a group of experts working on the moonshot) recently presented a report that outlined 10 key recommendations that would help achieve the goals of the initiative. These will benefit all forms of cancer, including those rare cancers that are much less well known.
How the Cancer Moonshot impacts rare cancers like Mesothelioma
One of the recommendations that will have a positive impact on less-known cancers is the establishment of a network for direct patient involvement. In simple terms, this means that patients can contribute their own tumor profile to a national database that would help expand the pool of knowledge that all scientists and researchers share. This will increase our understanding about what therapies work, in whom, and in which types of cancer.
Another proposal looks at immunotherapy treatments (like those that are currently being tested out in mesothelioma) and would create an immunotherapy clinical trials network that is devoted exclusively to looking at immunotherapy treatments. Mesothelioma is the perfect target for this, as immunotherapy drugs are just now being tested out in a number of clinical trials, with very positive results.
Lastly, the panel also recommended the creation of a national database for sharing and analyzing cancer data so that researchers, clinicians and patients will be able to contribute data, which will encourage efficient data analysis. By increasing the amount of sharing between researchers, practitioners, patients, and others who are involved, the likelihood of finding a cure – or at least more effective treatments – will increase exponentially.
These three recommendations are just some of the ways in which the Cancer Moonshot Initiative can make a difference, not only for the well known cancers but for the rarer ones as well.
Where do we go from here?
The explosion of medical knowledge and research in the last 10 to 20 years is a testament to human ingenuity and persistence, but the advances in cancer research are even more incredible. The Cancer Moonshot Initiative is looking to harness all of these advancements in cancer research to bring about a decade's worth of progress in just five years.
So what does this mean for mesothelioma and other rare cancers like it? By increasing the knowledge sharing, making patient databases more accessible to scientists, and creating clinical trial networks, this will have a marked impact on the rare cancer research that is being carried out in smaller scopes. Hopefully, in the end, this will shorten the amount of time it will take to see a treatment for this and many other forms of cancer.