Renewed effort to battle cancer, from Washington to San Francisco

A 'moon shot' to cure cancer is part of Obama's last Address

It’s not quite the War on Cancer—that was the term used by President Nixon back in the 1960s to marshal the resources of the federal government to cure the disease (more properly known today as many diseases), and was brought up again and again for years when the promised cure didn’t materialize. In President Obama’s last State of the Union address, he called for a “moon shot” (you know, “if we can put a man on the Moon, why can’t we … “) to renew the attack on cancer, and designated Vice President Joe Biden as “mission control” to guide federal involvement.

Various news outlets were aflutter leading up and just after the Address, mostly because another moon shot was announced at almost the same time: Cancer Moonshot 2020, which is an effort spearheaded by Dr. Patrick Soon-Shiong, now a pharma entrepreneur but formerly founder of Abraxis Bioscience, a company that commercialized Abraxane (paclitaxel); the company was sold in 2010 to Celgene. Abraxane is on its way to becoming a billion-dollar blockbuster therapy for several cancers. Soon-Shiong has brought some heavyweignt biopharma companies—Amgen, Celgene—into the effort, along with an insurer, Independence Blue Cross, multiple academic research centers, and Bank of America, into the effort. Several companies associated with Soon-Shiong himself are also involved.

The news so far is sketchy and subject to change; the New York Times had to revise an article it published on Jan. 11, and FastCompany had to revise an assumed link between the Obama address and Cancer Moonshot 2020. VP Biden, in his own statement published after the Address, said that he would “lead a dedicated, combined effort by governments, private industry, researchers, physicians, patients, and philanthropies to target investment, coordinate across silos, and increase access to information for everyone in the cancer community.” And also that “The Federal government will do everything it possibly can — through funding, targeted incentives, and increased private-sector coordination — to support research and enable progress.” He’ll be meeting with academic researcher at the University of Pennsylvania on Jan. 15, and with international leaders at the Davos summit in Switzerland next week.

There was press speculation that increased NIH funding, voted into law by Congress at the end of last year, could be targeted in this “moonshot,” but it’s not clear that it will flow into Cancer Moonshot 2020. That program is a little more organized at the moment: the goal is to create a registry of 20,000 cancer patients by 2020, with which a group of drugs currently under development can be tested and evaluated. The effort will focus on immunotherapies, some of which have already been commercialized (Merck’s Keytruda, BMS’ Opdivo and Yervoy) with some marked success in treating various cancers. The organization also empahsized that the registry will involve the participation of community oncologists (see details here).

Soon-Shiong and Biden have been in contact in recent months, according to press reports, brought together during the time when Biden’s son was battling brain cancer. The Vice President noted, in his announcement, that “this is personal.” Even so, it’s not clear whether the hasty promotion by Cancer Moonshot 2020 was to be in place before the State of the Union Address, or at the start of the J.P. Morgan Healthcare Conference, which kicks off this week in San Francisco, and has become a go-to event for biotechs. Either way, cancer researchers and community oncologists have some exciting times ahead.