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White House Gets Closer To Launching Its Cancer "Moonshot"

President Obama's new memorandum sets up a task force of federal agencies—to meet Monday—to coordinate cancer research and treatment.

[Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images]

The government's cancer cure moonshot is preparing for takeoff. After providing just a rough outline since President Obama first announced it in the State of the Union address, the White House is convening a federal task force to "clear out the bureaucratic hurdles — and, quite frankly, let science happen," Vice President Joe Biden wrote in a post on Medium the evening of January 27. Biden will chair the first meeting of the task force on Monday (February 1), which will include the Departments of Health and Human Services, Defense, Energy, and Commerce, as well as the National Institutes of Health and Food and Drug Administration, the vice president wrote.

A presidential memorandum aims to flesh out an administration strategy in the coming months, said Biden. He also said that the goal is "to lay groundwork" for the next administration to build on. So far, there have been only overall statements from the White House and the National Institutes of Health (NIH), indicating that the focus will be on next-generation treatments. These strategies include sequencing individual patients' unique cancer mutations and goosing their own immune systems to fight the disease—for example, through vaccines that train the immune system to attack tumors.

In his post, Biden notes that the federal government is often faulted for being too bureaucratic and that it has developed too many silos of agencies and programs that don't work together. But this will be different, he vows. "This will be the first time this kind of group has met as a team, charged with this kind of goal," writes Biden.

A big focus—unsurprising, given the Obama administration's strong advocacy of big data—is to link up the information in disparate research databases: "Almost every cancer center keeps a database of information — genetic history, medical records, and tissue banks — that might hold the key to improving certain cancer therapies," writes Biden. "Allowing researchers and oncologists to tap into this treasure trove of information is absolutely vital to speeding up the pace of progress toward a cure."

This effort involves coordination with "private-sector efforts" though the task force won't include representatives from the private sector, reports Bloomberg.

Since Obama announced the cancer moonshot in his speech several weeks ago, there has been some confusion from the beginning between it and Cancer MoonShot 2020, a private-sector and nonprofit coalition brought together by biotech billionaire Patrick Soon-Shiong.

Soon-Shiong and other members of his group have met on multiple occasions with the vice president in the past year (along with many other experts and philanthropists). Federal government officials have repeatedly emphasized that the two moonshots are completely separate, but government employees have been informally involved in some of the MoonShot 2020 meetings. Soon-Shiong, for his part, states that he and his fellow companies don't need government money. "We are not looking for any grant or financial support," says Soon-Shiong.

Updated.

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