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President Reignites ‘Cancer Moonshot,’ Stressing Screening, Ambitious Goals

February 2, 2022 by Dan McCue
President Reignites ‘Cancer Moonshot,’ Stressing Screening, Ambitious Goals
Then-Vice President Joe Biden speaks at the Edward M. Kennedy Institute for the United States Senate, on Oct. 19, 2016, in Boston, about the White House's cancer "moonshot" initiative. (AP Photo/Elise Amendola, File)

WASHINGTON — President Joe Biden on Wednesday relaunched the “cancer moonshot” project he oversaw during the Obama administration in an East Room event attended by lawmakers, agency heads, and doctors, nurses and researchers, many of whom will comprise a new “cancer cabinet.”

When then-President Barack Obama signed the original presidential memorandum creating a White House task force on cancer six years ago, the stated goal of the initiative was to achieve a decade’s worth of advances in cancer research in five years.

Congress responded by passing the 21st Century Cures Act, which provided $1.8 billion of new funding for cancer research in many areas including studies on cancer disparities, new clinical trial networks to drive drug discovery, and innovative projects examining childhood cancer.

The belief then, as now, is that the world health community is at an inflection point in its battle with cancer.

This hope is particularly strong now, a senior administration official said on a conference call with reporters Tuesday night, because knowledge gained during the ongoing battle with the coronavirus has provided the scientific community with new ideas on how to intervene and drive back deadly diseases.

On Wednesday, Biden framed the relaunch of the cancer moonshot and the beginning of renewed White House leadership on this effort.

“This could really be an American moment … and prove to the world we can do big things,” Biden said as he noted that an estimate 1.2 million Americans have lost their lives to cancer during the pandemic.

“Because of recent progress in cancer therapeutics, diagnostics, and patient-driven care, as well as the scientific advances and public health lessons of the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s now possible to set ambitious goals,” the official said during a preview of the president’s remarks.

Wednesday’s remarks also mark the beginning of the president’s personal re-engagement in the fight against cancer.

Biden not only led the original White House panel, overseeing representatives of at least 13 government agencies, he also served as the effort’s epicenter, having lost his son Beau a year earlier to brain cancer.

And when he and Obama left office in 2017, Biden launched the Biden Cancer Initiative to continue the work of assembling researchers and sharing data.

The initiative suspended operations after Biden announced his White House bid in 2019.

Biden’s goal now is to reduce the death rate from cancer by at least 50% over the next 25 years, and to improve the experience of people and their families living with and surviving cancer.

Biden was joined at the event by Vice President Kamala Harris and First Lady Jill Biden, and together they announced a “call to action” on cancer screening to jump start progress toward catching up on an estimated 9.5 million cancer screenings that were missed as a result of the pandemic.

Both women received standing ovations as they spoke of their respective, personal experiences with cancer.

“Four of my friends were diagnosed with breast cancer in one year,” Jill Biden recalled. “Since then, I’ve seen the darkness of this disease.”

Through the Cancer Moonshot, she said, “We will build a future where the word ‘cancer’ forever loses its power.”

Vice President Harris reflected on her mother, a scientist who spent her working career trying to defeat cancer for others.

“My whole life, I stood witness as my mother the scientist worked to end breast cancer,” Harris said. “She worked at a national laboratory. She published groundbreaking research.”

“Cancer ended my mother’s life,” Harris continued. “I will never forget the day she sat me and my sister down and told us she had been diagnosed with colon cancer. It was one of the worst days of my life.”

“One of the last questions she asked the hospice nurse was, ‘Are my daughters going to be okay?'” the vice president added, visibly moved.

To help ensure equitable access to screening, the administration wants to expand access to at-home screening (especially for colon cancer and HPV, the virus that causes cervical, head, neck and other cancers), and to mobile screening in communities without easy access to a clinic, through the community health networks built and strengthened during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Also, in a move similar to the effort to fight COVID-19, the president is directing federal agencies, led by the National Cancer Institute, to develop a focused program to expeditiously study and evaluate multi-cancer detection tests.

“The goal, of course, is to detect cancers when there may be more effective treatment options,” the administration official said.

The Department of Health and Human Services has also been committed to accelerating efforts to eliminate cervical cancer through screening and HPV vaccination, with a particular focus on reaching people who are most at risk.

A new report from the White House, “Closing Gaps in Cancer Screening,” lays out additional recommendations focused on connecting people, communities, and systems to increase equity and access.

The president did not commit the government to an exact dollar figure on what the reinvigorated cancer moonshot will cost, said senior administration officials explaining that the first step is to get the scientists and other subject matter experts together in the same room to determine the needs of the program.

Biden did say he wants to leverage a “whole-of-government approach” and create a national response “that the challenge of cancer demands,” one official said.

Among the concrete plans are the formation of a “Cancer Cabinet” which will be convened by the White House, bringing together departments and agencies across government to address cancer on multiple fronts.

These include the Department of Health and Human Services, Department of Veterans Affairs, Department of Defense, Department of Energy, Department of Agriculture, Environmental Protection Agency, National Institutes of Health, National Cancer Institute, Food and Drug Administration, Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Office of Science and Technology Policy, Domestic Policy Council, Office of the First Lady, Office of the Vice President, Office of Management and Budget, Office of Legislative Affairs, Office of Public Engagement, among others.

Biden said he will also host a White House Cancer Moonshot Summit, bringing together agency leadership, patient organizations, biopharmaceutical companies, the research, public health, and health care communities and more to highlight innovation, progress, and new commitments toward ending cancer.

He also plans to build upon a White House Cancer Roundtable Conversation series that has been going on for the past six months, with experts, including people living with cancer, caregivers, and survivors.

The president also called upon the private sector, foundations, academic institutions, health care providers and private citizens to take on the mission of reducing the deadly impact of cancer and improving patient experiences in the diagnosis, treatment, and survival of cancer.

“Progress will be informed by people living with cancer, caregivers, and families and contributed by all parts of the oncology community and beyond,” administration officials said. “We invite all Americans to share perspectives and ideas, and organizations, companies, and institutions to share actions they plan to take as part of this mission at whitehouse.gov/cancermoonshot.”

Biden said that taken together, these actions “will drive us toward ending cancer as we know it today.”

To achieve that, senior administration officials said, cancers need to be diagnosed sooner.

“Today, we know cancer as a disease we often diagnose too late. We must increase access to existing ways to screen for cancer, and support patients through the process of diagnosis,” one official said. “We can also greatly expand the cancers we can screen for. Five years ago, detecting many cancers at once through blood tests was a dream. Now new technologies and rigorous clinical trials could put this within our reach. Detecting and diagnosing cancers earlier means there may be more effective treatment options.”

Even better, would be to prevent cancers in the first place.

“Today, we know cancer is a disease that people and families have few good ways to prevent,” the official said. “But now, scientists are asking if mRNA technology, used in the safe and effective COVID-19 vaccines to teach your body to fight off the virus, could be used to stop cancer cells when they first appear. And we know we can address environmental exposures to cancer, including by cleaning up polluted sites and delivering clean water to American homes, for example, through the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law.”

The administration is also striving to ensure that every community in America — rural, urban, tribal, and everywhere else — has access to cutting-edge cancer diagnostics, therapeutics, and clinical trials, and that the right treatments are targeted to the right people.

The administration also intends to speed progress against the most deadly and rare cancers, including childhood cancers.

The president also called for providing additional aids to families overcome by the medical, financial, and emotional burdens that cancer brings.

Part of this, he said, will entail turning the “cancer care system” into a “learning system.”

“When asked, most people with cancer are glad to make their data available for research to help future patients, if it can be done easily while respecting their privacy. Additionally, the diverse personal experiences of patients and their families make their input essential in developing approaches to end cancer as we know it,” an administration official said.

Dan can be reached at dan@thewellnews.com and at https://twitter.com/DanMcCue.

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