Monday was a big day in the fight against cancer. Vice President Joe Biden convened the first meeting of the Cancer Moonshot Task Force of government departments and other agencies, the White House announced a proposal to spend $1 billion on the effort over the next two years, and in a Q&A with the task force on Twitter specific concerns such as childhood cancer were highlighted.
In a fact sheet released on Monday afternoon, the White House proposed funding that includes $195 million this year for the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and a proposed $755 million in the government’s 2017 budget for the NIH and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). The fact sheet largely continues the themes the administration has hammered on since the State of the Union address: genetic analysis of cancers, treatments such as vaccines that harness the immune system to attack tumors, and better data sharing among researchers. On the last item, the fact sheet specifies that this will be a broad effort including not just government and academia, but also philanthropies, patient-advocate organizations, and biotech and pharmaceutical companies. Only government bodies will serve on the task force, but it will convene a “blue ribbon panel” that includes outside experts.
There will also be a fund for blue-sky research efforts, what the government calls “high-risk, high-return research.” This is a pretty vague area so far. When asked what this meant, NIH director Dr. Francis S. Collins, tweeted, “We don’t know yet, we are counting on wildly creative ideas from the whole community.”
Childhood cancer hadn’t gotten much mention until Monday, which a lot of people mentioned during the Twitter Q&A. The White House fact sheet calls for a new focus on childhood cancer, including analyzing rare cancer tumors and studying how cancer progresses in order to develop better treatments. During the Twitter Q&A, Dr. Douglas Lowy, acting director of the National Cancer Institute (part of NIH) mentioned a program called the NCI-MATCH trial targeted at children with advanced cancer and few treatment options.
“Children are special. They deserve treatments that are made for them,” Danielle Leach, the director of government relations and advocacy at St. Baldrick’s Foundation, tells Fast Company. “Pediatric cancers don’t happen in adults, for the most part,” she says. St. Baldrick’s, which specializes in child cancer research, put out a press release last week saying that there have been shortages of children’s cancer medications (both chemotherapy and medications to treat side effects) in the past and that they expect more shortages in the future. “This is a problem almost exclusively impacting children in the United States and not other developed countries,” says Dr. Peter Adamson, chairman of the Children’s Oncology Group (COG), in the press release. COG calls itself the world’s largest organization devoted exclusively to childhood and adolescent cancer research, and St. Baldrick’s heavily funds it.
The White House fact sheet describes at length the importance of bringing in the U.S. military. (Defense and Veterans Affairs are two of the five federal agencies represented on the task force.) The Pentagon is already spending tens of millions of dollars per year and funding individual centers for breast, prostate, and gynecological cancers. The fact sheet doesn’t say what more DOD will do, however, other than allocating more money. The VA, in addition to the 250 cancer research projects it already conducts, will be a source of possible patients for genetic studies. About 140,000 cancer patients are enrolled in the VA Million Veteran Program to contribute biological samples to genetic studies.
The Moonshot’s massive, multipronged approach seems well suited to the multifaceted nature of cancer. On Twitter, Collins admitted that the moonshot metaphor is not perfect, since there is not a single destination for this effort. “More we study cancer, more we realize that it is a collection of #rarediseases. We want to tackle all of them,” he tweeted.