Cancer ‘Moonshot' to Harness Microsoft's Computing Power: Report

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By Jeannie Baumann

Oct. 17 — The White House's “moonshot” initiative to transform cancer care taps into industry giants from Microsoft and Amazon Web Services to ridesharing services Uber and Lyft, under a plan released Oct. 17.

Vice President Joe Biden presented to President Barack Obama the final report of the cancer moonshot task force—an interagency group forming the federal plan to try to achieve a decade’s worth of progress in five years—along with his own personal report. The policy and regulatory changes in the task force report range from new drug approvals to patent reform, the arts, defense research and the environment, said Greg Simon, the executive director of the cancer moonshot task force. Simon also announced a number of private-sector initiatives.

“Today marks a banner day for the cancer moonshot with the release of the task force report,” Simon said. By culminating the work of more than 20 White House Cabinet and subcabinet agencies that have been meeting since February, he said, the report sets “a new standard for what it means to be involved in the fight against cancer.” The report itself said the task force marks the first time this many government agencies are collaborating to “to tackle the challenges along the spectrum of cancer research and care to improve outcomes for patients.”

Sense of Urgency

Biden, who is leading the moonshot initiative, said medical technologies and treatment plans had progressed rapidly, even since his late son Beau was diagnosed with and later succumbed to cancer.

“The fundamental thing I've come away with is there is a need for a greater sense of urgency because there are available answers now to some cancers and there is enormous opportunity in sharing data,” Biden said at a White House event to release the moonshot reports.

He expressed confidence medical advances with lead to new prevention technology.

“I look forward to the day when your grandchildren and my grandchildren and their children show up at the office to get their physical to start school and they get a shot for measles. They get a vaccine that affects significant [types] of cancers. We are very close to reaching that point.” Biden pledged, “I'm gonna devote the rest of my life to working on this, and I think we're perilously close to making some gigantic progress.”

Jon Retzlaff, managing director of science policy and government affairs for the American Association for Cancer Research, told Bloomberg BNA, “We’re extremely excited now that we have all the material and justification for moving forward and for communicating to policymakers why the cancer moonshot initiative needs to be supported and adequate funding provided.”

No Additional Funding Request

The president's budget request for fiscal year 2017 includes $755 million for new cancer-related research activities at both the National Institutes of Health and the Food and Drug Administration. Simon said the administration doesn't plan on changing its budget request and added there's no single, target number for achieving all the goals of the moonshot.

“One, it’s not all about money. A lot of it is about collaboration, culture change and process change in the federal government and in the private sector,” he said. “Secondly, the moonshot still has a long way to go in terms of laying out activities for the next year that will help us achieve our goal of getting a decade’s worth of progress in the prevention, diagnosis and treatment of cancer in five years.”

Retzlaff said there should be both robust funding for the moonshot in 2017 and for the long term. “This is not a just a one-time influx of dollars,” he told Bloomberg BNA. “This has to be sustained over time for us to achieve the goals that have been set out.”

Five Strategic Goals

The task force report listed five strategic goals to:

  •  advance the pace of scientific discovery;
  •  unleash the power of data, including electronic health records, large data sets and public health information;
  •  bring new therapies to patients faster;
  •  strengthen prevention and diagnosis; and
  •  improve patient access and care.

The report listed programs already underway at federal agencies, such as the new Oncology Center of Excellence at the FDA to streamline review and get new cancer therapies to patients more quickly, and a final rule to make more clinical trials information publicly available.

Ellen Sigal, founder of Friends of Cancer Research, cited the new FDA center as an example of tangible progress from the moonshot in breaking down barriers and connecting experts to accelerate treatments and heighten patient input.

“How far we have come heartens and humbles me. But we are just getting started. Complacency is not an option,” Sigal said in remarks to begin the White House event for the report's release. She called for redoubling efforts to achieve the cancer moonshot goals. “What does that mean? It means holding fast to the conviction that every patient matters, that we must never fail to listen to them or recognize their humanity.”

Private Sector Efforts

The more than 30 private-sector commitments Simon announced include:

  •  a cloud computing collaboration between the National Cancer Institute, part of the NIH, with Amazon Web Services and Microsoft to provide cancer researchers with secure access to high-quality cancer genomic and associated data that scientists can mine to reduce cancer's impact;
  •  a plan by ridesharing service Uber to dedicate $5 million in engineering resources to connect millions of patients in more than 500 cities by 2018 with health-care related and non-emergency medical transportation; also, Lyft is expanding a Boston program that provides cancer patients from low-income communities with free transportation to and from their treatments; and
  •  agreement by more than 20 organizations to aggregate and make freely available raw data sets for tumor analysis, including drug companies such as AstraZeneca, Eli Lilly and Co. and Pfizer.

The task force report also folded in the scientific agenda issued in September by a separate blue ribbon panel (10 LSLR 18, 9/16/16).

Government Initiatives

On the government side, the task force highlighted:

  •  the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office's cancer moonshot challenge, which aims to enable more precise funding and policy decisions for promising new treatments by using intellectual property data sets to map and identify trending cancer technologies;
  •  a Department of Defense project to explore digitizing and making available its repository of more than 34 million pathology samples;
  •  an Environmental Protection Agency-led project to reduce exposure to radon, a naturally occurring radioactive gas that is the second-leading cause of lung cancer; and
  •  an art therapy project from the National Endowment for the Arts.

Moving forward, Simon said, the Department of Health and Human Services is considering adopting an open-access policy that could significantly affect how scientists publish their findings. Removing barriers to data sharing has been identified as a priority of the moonshot.

“HHS, NIH and NCI are currently reviewing the means by which we can require that government funded research be published in open access journals so that there’s not a delay between the publication of meaningful data and its accessibility to the general public as well as the scientific community,” Simon said.

Publishers have argued that they need to recoup the expensive, timely process of peer review required for each manuscript, which they have said can run thousands of dollars per article.

The Journal of the American Medical Association said in an Oct. 17 statement sent to Bloomberg BNA that it is fully compliant with NIH policies on public access. “All research articles are made free public access [six] months after publication without any author fees,” the statement said. “In addition, all articles are free public access on The JAMA Network Reader—also without any author fees. In addition, authors of research articles may deposit copies of their articles in PubMed Central for free public access [six] months after publication.”

—With assistance from Cheryl Bolen

To contact the reporter on this story: Jeannie Baumann in Washington at

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Randy Kubetin at

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