The National Cancer Moonshot Summit, to be held on Wednesday, is an effort by the White House to promote efforts championed by Vice President Joe Biden to find a cure for cancer. At the same time, dozens of associated regional conferences will take place around the country, bringing together scientists, patients, and health care experts.
In advance of the summit, STAT reporters and editors interviewed various individuals in the worlds of science, medicine, and health for a sampling of opinion on Biden’s initiative. They range from skepticism to support.
The interviews — some of them lengthy, others conducted on the run — were done at Spotlight Health, part of the Aspen Ideas Festival in Aspen, Colo. The comments have been edited for clarity.
Ezekiel Emanuel, Vice Provost for Global Initiatives and chair of the Department of Medical Ethics and Health Policy at the University of Pennsylvania:
There are four obvious things to do to improve the health of Americans. One, increase the tax on cigarettes. That’ll do more to bring down cancer than any moonshot because it will prevent cancer rather than spending a lot to treat it. Two, we need to get people to exercise more. Three, we need better diets and a tax on sugary beverages, such the one my adopted hometown of Philadelphia recently passed. We will see what the impact is, but it certainly isn’t going to hurt. Four, take some of the money you’d get from a cigarette or soda tax and invest it in home visits for poor women who are having babies. Every child who has a healthy start is a very huge return on investment; it improves their health and school performance.
Let’s be honest. There’s not that much money in the moonshot. I just don’t think it is going to have that big an impact. We’ve already got a lot going on in cancer. More than 800 drugs are in cancer clinical trials. That’s really where we should be focused.
Risa Lavizzo-Mourey, president and CEO of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation:
The cancer moonshot evokes a very positive time in American history, a time when we were able to harness our collective will and brainpower and resources.
We have so much information that is not being harnessed. A lot of the progress will be accelerated by better sharing of information.
One thing I hope the moonshot will address is the racial disparities that exist in cancer care: lack of access to insurance, which then leads to later diagnoses; the absence of screening; insurance that may prohibit some people from getting the most sophisticated diagnostic tests or treatments. In situations where you can remove some of those disparities, the outcomes are nearly identical, at least between blacks and whites.
Eric Lander, president and founding director of the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard:
We aren’t going to be curing cancer in 10 years. But there’s nothing wrong with putting down ambitious markers and organizing our thinking together. The more we ramp up attention on something like cancer, the more creative we’re all going to get.
Dawn Laguens, executive vice president and chief experience officer at Planned Parenthood:
We need to go after cancer, which has devastated so many lives, so many families. What I would like more resources for — and what we have seen a push for — is the HPV vaccine, which can help prevent a variety of cancers in women and men.
Robert Califf, commissioner of the US Food and Drug Administration:
The FDA will play a huge role in the moonshot.
Many of us believe that cancer is at an inflection point right now with the ability to target therapy using genomics and immunotherapy at the same time. The investment of not just money but also breaking down barriers to sharing of information could really make a difference.
Joe Biden has the resilience and perseverance to talk to people, and has friends on both sides of the aisle. If a cancer moonshot is ever going to work, this would be the time to do it.
When asked about the name cancer moonshot, Califf said “No comment” and walked away.
Mark McClellan, professor and director of the Duke-Margolis Center for Health Policy at Duke University, and former FDA commissioner and administrator for the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services:
Making progress on diseases like cancer is partly about discovery. More funding for basic research is important, but progress is also about development. Translating from basic science in the lab to reliable, safe, effective treatments is really hard. One thing I’ve noticed over the years with these big initiatives is that they tend to put the money into basic research, which is important, but there should be a complementary component in what I’d call development science, like setting up big data programs using existing systems of care. The FDA sees every day what goes wrong in development programs. It has programs like breakthrough therapy designation, which provide more resources for helping public and private organizations collaborate. So bring in the FDA and think about development, not just basic research.