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By Jeannie Baumann
Jan. 15 — The so-called “moonshot” initiative to cure cancer could catalyze changes that improve data sharing among scientists and increase clinical trial participation, White House and NIH leaders indicated during a Jan. 14 conference call.
Vice President Joe Biden is leading a national effort to double the rate of progress in advances toward preventing and treating cancers, which President Barack Obama announced during his final State of the Union address Jan. 13. The National Institutes of Health held a follow-up telephone press conference Jan. 14 on the initiative with NIH Director Francis S. Collins and Douglas R. Lowy, director of the NIH's National Cancer Institute. White House aide Don Graves, who is the deputy assistant to the president and the vice president's head of policy, also participated.
“The notion of a moonshot, which the vice president articulated, I think should be seen as one of being aspirational and not business as usual, which would translate into much faster progress,” Lowy said. “But 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.”
Collins said the 23 percent drop in cancer deaths over the past two decades is an indication of remarkable progress. But there still will be an estimated 600,000 cancer-related deaths in 2016, which indicates there's still a long way to go. “Scientists understand cancer at the molecular level in a way that was not dreamed of a few decades ago,” the NIH director said. Genomic technologies have provided detailed insights into cancer and new immunotherapies, or treatments that use the body's own immune system to help fight cancer, have helped treat patients. But, he said, these tools don't always work.
“A coalescence of events has led to this being a moment where it seems that this kind of an initiative is particularly compelling,” Collins said. “We're on the right track.”
When asked about funding, Collins said “it's not possible to disclose” what's in the president's budget before the White House releases it Feb. 9. “I think that would be the point at which you would want to look closely and see what kind of resources are attached to this clearly very strong presidential and vice presidential priority.”
In his statement, Biden said only 5 percent of cancer patients in the U.S. end up in a clinical trial. Lowy said during the media call that “having more people on clinical trials in cancer is a really key issue, and this is a area where there might be the possibility for improvement.”
“Patients are absolutely critically important to any initiative because really the goal of any part of the NIH is ultimately to try to help people,” he said. “In addition, with all of the advances that are being made, it's also important for people all over the country to have access to the latest, first quality treatment available. And this is also an area where there is room for substantial improvement.”
Biden also made reference to data sharing, specifically that “Data and technology innovators can play a role in revolutionizing how medical and research data is shared and used to reach new breakthroughs.”
Collins said the agency already has issued policies on data sharing, and the moonshot initiative is another occasion to expedite data sharing polices. Specifically, he said, the NIH can insist that any large data sets that are developed through NIH funding must be made accessible to researchers while protecting patient privacy and confidentiality.
“The vice president has a wonderful opportunity here to further encourage that kind of data sharing in other organizations that don't get government funding,” Collins said. “It's the right thing to do.”
Graves confirmed the vice president is very interested in data sharing and also has been working organizations that don't receive federal funding to promote data sharing.
“We think that in partnership with a whole range of folks, we may be able to change the incentives around how we drive sharing of data,” Graves said.
The goal of the initiative, Biden said in his statement, was to make a decade's worth of advances in five years.
When asked how to measure success of that progress, Graves said the vice president's office plans to spend significant time over the next few weeks identifying relatively standard, commonly understood metrics to measure progress. “The only way to really get a feel for whether we're actually accelerating progress is to have a common understanding of what's actually going on right now,” the White House aide said.
Collins added that thinking closely about the metrics to assess progress is important in any field of medical research, saying scientists always run into surprises when conducting medical research.
“This is not one of those thing where you just turn the crank and get a predictable result,” he said. “Sometimes things happen much more quickly than you would have expected. Sometimes they take a lot longer. Sometimes your hypotheses were right on. Sometimes you have to completely tear them up and start over.”
“But I think the notion the vice president is trying to put forward here is that this is not just a little tweak on what we're trying to do about the problem of cancer,” Collins said. “This is expected to have a major impact.”
To contact the reporter on this story: Jeannie Baumann in Washington at firstname.lastname@example.org
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The State of the Union address is available at https://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2016/01/12/remarks-president-barack-obama-%E2%80%93-prepared-delivery-state-union-address.
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