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Here's How President Obama Wants To Cure Cancer

Obama gives his blessing to an ambitious immunotherapy program against cancer, with Biden leading the government's initiative.

U.S. President Barack Obama (front) looks on as U.S. Vice President Joe Biden gestures and U.S. Speaker of the House Paul Ryan (R) looks on during the State of the Union Address in a Joint Session of Congress at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., January 12, 2016.

[Photo: Saul Loeb, AFP, Getty Images]

It wasn't expected to be a major State of the Union address—a final speech from a president in his last term, recounting achievements and expressing hope for the future. And then Obama made some news: "Let’s make America the country that cures cancer once and for all." And to lead the administration's effort, the president picked VP Joe Biden, who recently lost his son Beau to cancer, and who has said that finding a cure is one of his major life goals.

Obama compared the effort to a moonshot, and he's not the only one to do this. His State of the Union address came just one day after the launch of another effort, led by big pharma and biotech companies, dubbed Cancer MoonShot 2020. The leader of MoonShot 2020, biotech company NantWorks' controversial founder and CEO Dr. Patrick Soon-Shiong, is one of the people who has met with the vice president to discuss radical cancer-treating approaches and has influenced Biden's thinking on the topic, reports the New York Times.

At least one branch of the federal government, the John P. Murtha Cancer Center at Walter Reed Military Hospital, is on record as supporting Soon-Shiong's MoonShot. With details still to come about the administration's moonshot, Soon-Shiong's project offers a few hints of what these new cancer-fighting approaches may entail.

His project, formally announced on January 11, is a switch from chemotherapy to immunotherapy; from killing cancer cells directly to helping the body's immune system kill cancer. It is focused on personalized genetic sequencing to develop custom treatments for each patient. And the time frame is at least as aggressive as the race to the moon. Within five years, it aims to not only design but also implement clinical trials of new immunotherapies for 20 tumor types in up to 20,000 patients. By 2020, these trials are expected to get as far as phase 3—widespread participation on an unheard-of timeframe.

Though it's a nonprofit, MoonShot 2020 is led by big pharma firms like Celgene and Amgen, and biotech companies including NantKwest, Etubics, Altor Bioscience, and Precision Biologics. Participating hospitals and universities include Massachusetts General Hospital, Johns Hopkins University, the University of Miami, the University of Utah, and the Tufts Cancer Center.

One biotech company, NantWorks, is spearheading the effort and is the key link to Biden, who reached out to Soon-Shiong as Beau Biden was still battling the disease. According to the Times, the VP became a believer in Soon-Shiong's radical approach to cancer, which the physician was already calling a moonshot in a two-page proposal he gave to the VP. In announcing that he would not run for president, Biden expressed his support for Soon-Shiong's vision, saying, " I believe that we need a moonshot in this country to cure cancer. It's personal. But I know we can do this." Biden later added, "If I could be anything, I would have wanted to have been the president that ended cancer, because it's possible." Instead, he aspires to be the VP who does.

The exact nature of the Obama's administration's support for the moonshot immunotherapy approach remains unclear. Any tests will have to follow federal guidelines, of course, and government can play a role in speeding up approvals. The biggest commitment so far is from the US military through the participation of the John P. Murtha Cancer Center at Walter Reed Military Hospital, in part by sourcing participants. "We validate big science through our clinical trials network," wrote Col. Craig Shriver, M.D., of the Murtha Center in the MoonShot program's press release. "There are 1.2 million active duty military members, 9.3 million beneficiaries that receive military health care. That’s a huge network."

Note: An earlier version of this article incorrectly characterized Obama's comments as a formal endorsement of Dr. Soon-Shiong's MoonShot program.