What Is the Cancer Moonshot Initiative?

Striving Toward Cancer Prevention

The Cancer Moonshot initiative is a coalition launched by the Obama administration in January 2016 with a goal of finding vaccine-based immunotherapy options against cancer. It was launched by Vice President Joe Biden after President Barack Obama challenged America to end cancer during his final State of the Union Address.

It is named in honor of President John F. Kennedy’s speech in 1962 in which he motivated the nation to support a space race against the Soviet Union to land a man on the moon first, which helped Neil Armstrong do just that seven years later.

Stats About Cancer

Cancer is the leading cause of death in the United States. In 2018 an estimated 1,735,350 new cases of cancer were diagnosed, with over 600,000 people dying from cancer. According to the National Cancer Institute, the most common types of cancer in the United States are breast cancer, lung cancer, prostate cancer, colon cancer, and melanoma.

While the mortality rate of cancer is higher among men than women, over 38 percent of both men and women will be diagnosed with cancer at some point in their lifetime.

Causes of Cancer

Cancer in the body occurs when normal cells transform, shifting from a pre-cancerous mass or lesion to a malignant tumor over time. These changes happen in part due to a person’s genetic makeup as well as exposure to physical carcinogens (such as ultraviolet rays), chemical carcinogens (like tobacco or asbestos), or biological carcinogens (an infection from a virus or bacteria, such as Hepatitis B and C).

Lifestyle can also play a part when it comes to cancer. Roughly one-third of deaths from cancer are due to behavioral risks, including high body mass index, poor diet, lack of physical activity, tobacco use, and alcohol consumption. Tobacco use alone accounts for 22 percent of cancer deaths.

Timeline

Funding for the Cancer Moonshot was put into effect in December 2016. This required the United States Senate to approve the 21st Century Cures Act, which would help accelerate medical product development and bring new innovations to patients faster and more efficiently. This act led to the National Institutes of Health Innovation account to have $1.8 billion in additional funding over seven years to help fund moonshot research and projects.

After Senate approval, the law was amended to be named the Beau Biden Cancer Moonshot in honor of Vice President Biden’s late son Beau, who passed away from brain cancer in 2015. The Biden Cancer Initiative is the name of the official non-profit organization that is building off the Moonshot's goals.

Cancer Moonshot Blue Ribbon Panel

Together, with the help of the American Association for Cancer Research, the Moonshot task force assembled a blue ribbon panel of leading experts in the fields of medicine—including biology, immunology, genomics, diagnostics, bioinformatics, cancer advocacy groups, investigators who work with clinical trials, and representatives from pharmaceuticals companies.

This panel outlined 10 research recommendations for making significant, accelerated progress to the diagnosis, management, and prevention of cancer over the next five years. The recommendations include:

  • creating a network for direct patient involvement
  • establishing a cancer immunotherapy network to examine why it’s effective in some patients, but not all
  • identify ways to overcome drug resistance that lead cancer cells to stop responding to previously effective treatments.
  • build a cancer data system on a national level for researchers, clinicians, and patients
  • increase research on the causes of childhood cancer
  • reduce the side effects of current cancer treatments
  • ensure that proven cancer prevention and detection strategies are broadly adopted nationwide
  • use precision medicine to predict a patient’s response to treatments
  • build 3D tumor maps to help researchers understand how cells interact and tumors evolve from lesions to malignancy
  • develop new cancer technologies and treatments

All of these recommendations work to provide three things: accelerate progress in technology, encourage collaboration, and improve the sharing of information and data in the medical field as related to cancer.

Progress

With the help of the National Cancer Institute (NCI), progress is underway in funding and exploring the recommendations the panel has laid out. For the development of immunotherapy alone, the NCI has established two groups to look into immunotherapeutic approaches in both adults and children.

These same groups, such as The Immuno-Oncology Translational Network—a group comprised of 19 institutions—are also working to improve their database resources, allowing researchers to have access to more information and collaborate more easily.

In the fields of cancer detection and prevention, Moonshot initiatives are being funded to improve smoking cessation programs in low-economic areas that have high tobacco rates.

In addition, Moonshot's goal is to improve screening education and opportunities in low-income areas or populations with inadequate health care coverage for colorectal cancer.

The research arm of the Blue Ribbon panel report is also in progress, with the development of the Human Tumor Atlas Network (HTAN) that is comprised of 10 research centers and one data management system. This group is focused on developing 3D maps of human cancers to understand how they evolve and grow.

Last, with the creation of the pilot program NCI-Connect, a website for people who are diagnosed with rare central nervous system tumors, patients can become preregistered for any clinical trials for which they might be eligible for.

Other Organizations

Major education resources such as the American Lung Association and institutions like The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center are working in partnership with the Biden Cancer Initiative to increase funding and research to their respective fields.

The American Lung Association, for example, launched a LUNG FORCE Initiative in 2014 to secure more funding for lung cancer research. It has collaborated with organizations like Stand Up to Cancer and the LUNGevity fund for innovations in lung cancer treatment and prevention, following the mission of the Moonshot in pooling resources together to make the most impact.

The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center is also sharing data with investigators, specifically in the cases of triple-negative breast cancer patients who may or may not respond well to traditional therapies. By sharing its database of this type of cancer, it allows researchers to figure out ways to beat it while also helping to expand the knowledge to treat other types of breast cancer. 

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