A giant step for a cancer cure?

Biden’s call for ‘moonshot’ may still be awaiting takeoff

I have followed Vice President Joseph Biden’s task to establish a “cancer moonshot” with equal parts excitement and skepticism. If you look at this all-out effort to accelerate cancer research in the context of history, you will find we had a similar call to arms in 1971 when President Richard Nixon signed the National Cancer Act.

That effort, eventually known as “the war on cancer,” had an amazing impact on our nation. By the early 1990s, cancer death rates had leveled off, and our knowledge of cancer had grown in ways we could have never imagined. We have incredible treatments available today that may have never been possible without that 1970s initiative.

This is an exciting time in cancer care and research. Many new drugs are now being used to attack targets on and in cancer cells that are unique to those specific cancers. This form of targeted therapy holds great promise for shifting cancer from a life-threatening disease to a manageable chronic illness.

One thing Mr. Biden and I agree about is that despite progress, we are not where we need to be! Almost 650,000 people in the United States still die each year due to cancer.

Unfortunately, cancer is not one disease but a group of hundreds of different ones with many molecular variations. This alone creates a major hurdle to overcome toward the ultimate “giant step” of being able to declare a cure for cancer.

With the federal government’s history of decreasing investments in cancer research, I am truly worried that our new “moonshot” may never make it off the launch pad.

You see, over time the advancements we’ve made — those countless small steps forward — have only been possible because of the many thousands of patients who have participated in clinical trials. By allowing researchers the opportunity to learn from their personal battles, these patients have moved us past the launch gate where we now await take-off.

I’ve seen the positive effects of their efforts up close and personal:

  • Diseases that were once incurable now can be treated with a pill.
  • Our ability to provide supportive services has never been better, and we now understand that to prevail against cancer we must comprehensively care for the body and the person within.

The end results are better outcomes and improved quality of life for all those touched by cancer.

Getting to the next phase of our journey will take a significant investment of resources. This is where my skepticism kicks in. Since one of every two men and one of every three women will get cancer, I believe there is no investment more important. But, aside from the financial investment that’s needed, what more can we do to bring society together to focus on the singular goal of beating cancer?

Well, Mr. Biden is exactly right when he states we must do more to give patients access to clinical trials. Right now, only about 5 percent of cancer patients participate in clinical trials. We won’t reach the clouds, let alone the moon, if we don’t improve on this.

I believe our journey to beat cancer stands at a crossroads. To move forward we need:

  • A federal investment and a cooperative effort among our health systems to bring new and exciting discoveries to our patients as rapidly and safely as possible
  • Large health systems outside of academic institutions to be active in developing new treatments, since the vast majority of cancer patients are cared for in community health facilities
  • Education for all patients on the potential value of clinical research
  • To get rid of confusion over what it means to participate in clinical research. We must create an expectation among patients to ask, “What trials do you have for me?”

If our aim is to eliminate the pain and suffering of cancer, in many ways a moonshot is more a first stop than an end point. We advance medicine by building knowledge.

History tells us after humankind first walked on the moon in 1969, plans soon turned toward answering the question: Now how do we get to Mars?

– Joseph M. Flynn, D.O., MPH, FACP
Executive Director and Physician-in-Chief
Norton Cancer Institute

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