In his final State of the Union address, President Barack Obama announced a new cancer-research funding initiative to cure cancer. On Feb. 1, the White House pledged $1 billion in cancer-research funding toward the National Institutes of Health and Federal Drug Administration in the 2016 and 2017 fiscal budgets to discover new treatments.
Obama called the initiative a “moonshot” to emphasize that his administration wants to make the fight against cancer a top priority, similar to the priority given to the moon landing during the presidential administrations of Kennedy and his successors. Before formulating the goals of the initiative, Vice President Joe Bidenn with 15 doctors and researchers, including Patricia LoRusso, professor of medical oncology and associate director of Innovative Medicine at Yale Cancer Center, for consultation on how to best utilize the funding. The initiative aims to bring new therapies to patients and improve data sharing and applications of genomics in the clinic to accelerate the pace of research, according to a February White House press release. Though this “cancer moonshot” initiative has largely been met with hope, researchers still have tempered expectations.
“The notion of a moonshot, which the vice president articulated, I think should be seen as aspirational and not business as usual, which would translate into much faster progress,” said Douglas Lowy, acting director of the National Cancer Institute. “The faster progress is not going to take care of the cancer problem in the next month, the next year or even in the next couple of years, but the opportunities are enormous at this time.”
Lowy detailed the NCI’s plan to improve data sharing amongst researchers by launching a genomic data cloud that will hold genomic and clinical data from up to 50,000 patients.
Lowy noted that while the mortality rates for most cancers have decreased in the past two decades, the mortality rates for specific types of cancers have remained stagnant due to the lack of new treatments.
“We have the capacity to incorporate not just data from NCI trials, but in addition, from other trials,” Lowy said. “The vice president could make an enormous difference in creating greater demand for data sharing. This kind of database has enormous potential.”
At the meeting with the vice president’s aids, LoRusso and the team of researchers and doctors discussed a clinical database and sharing initiative — project GENIE, for Genomics, Evidence, Neoplasia, Information, Exchange. She said it is currently being beta tested at 10 select institutions which they plan to expand.
LoRusso emphasized that genomics will have an “important place in the future of cancer drug therapy” and is already impacting patients.
However, Robert Alpern, dean of the Yale School of Medicine, expressed hesitation about the impact this initiative will have.
“Science evolves with time,” Alpern said. “You can certainly accelerate the rate at which it moves, at certain times by infusing more money, but the likelihood that a one-year ‘moonshot’ is going to have the effect that the name implies is unlikely.”
He also disagrees that data sharing is a major problem in cancer research.
“We hear all the time from people outside of science that science is slowed down by the lack of data sharing. Data is shared in science and at just the right time. You don’t want to share it prematurely because bad data could get out,” Alpern said.
Alpern compared excessive scientific data sharing to socialism, adding that he believes if scientists become unable to establish the priority of their work, incentives to innovate will diminish and progress will be slowed.
Alpern said he believes that cancer research is already moving quickly, but in order to truly accelerate the pace of progress, there needs to be a sustainable funding initiative.
The global cost of cancer treatment currently stands at $100 billion, a 10 percent increase from 2010, according to the IMS Institute for Healthcare Informatics.