A panel of top scientists is urging the Obama administration to bet big on tumor profiling and immunotherapy treatments in its cancer moonshot — two areas that are viewed with great promise, but still face unanswered questions about their ultimate effectiveness.
The experts are recommending the creation of a new national network that would allow cancer patients across the country to have their tumors genetically profiled and included in a new national database — one of several recommended steps that they say would significantly speed the progress of cancer research in the United States.
The panel is also urging the creation of a network to coordinate clinical trials using immunotherapy, the promising new treatment that turns the body’s immune system against the disease.
The recommendations are part of a report issued Wednesday by an expert panel advising the White House in its cancer moonshot initiative. It was formally accepted by the National Cancer Advisory Board Wednesday morning.
The tumor network would help scientists better identify which treatments work for which cancers in which patients, the panel said. As scientists become more aware of the many different kinds of cancer, and turn increasingly to more personalized treatments, they see the profiling the genetics of individual tumors as crucial.
Patients would be connected with the hospitals and cohorts across the country that profile tumors and those institutions would share the collected data. The network would both aid in enrolling specific patients in clinical trials that show promise for their cancer by letting them “pre-register” for trials, the panel said, and allow researchers to make broader observations about the genetic makeup of different cancers and about which treatments are successful in fighting them.
Researchers have been clamoring for more tumor profiling since the moonshot was first announced by the White House. There is at least one caveat, however: As the panel itself notes, there is currently limited evidence about whether tumor profiling actually leads to better care, though that is attributed at least in part to the limited ability of researchers to collect the large amounts of data needed to prove its effectiveness.
So the experts argue that the proposed network “would have a transformative impact on cancer research and care, potentially leading to precision oncology being integrated into everyday care in doctors’ offices for all patients.”
The second proposed network centers on another area that many researchers believe holds great promise, though the scientific evidence is still catching up: immunotherapy.
The Obama administration should create a national clinical trials network for immunotherapy, the panel said. The network would coordinate efforts across different institutions developing immunotherapies. Those efforts should focus initially on cancers that have proven susceptible to the treatment, such as melanoma and some lung cancers, as well as those that have not, such as prostate and pancreatic cancers. An eventual goal would be the creation of preventive cancer vaccines, the panel said.
Immunotherapy is one of the hottest areas for cancer research, but, as the panel points out, it is currently successful only in a limited number of patients. The experts argue the proposed network would help solve some of the riddles currently hindering their progress.
“Current immunotherapy treatments represent only the tip of the iceberg of what is possible, and human studies using newly developed, cutting-edge technologies are key to further advances,” they said.
The panel’s recommendations are some of the first tangible work of the White House’s cancer moonshot, which has been led by Vice President Joe Biden in the last year of the Obama administration.
The proposals would require new funding, and the White House has requested more than $1 billion to pay for the moonshot. But Congress has not yet set aside money to pay for the initiative. The advisory board also formally agreed Wednesday to urge Congress to provide “increased and sustained” funding for the plan.
Groups that have been lobbying Congress for the moonshot funding believe the panel’s report will help them make their case to lawmakers.
“They needed to see a plan,” said Jon Retzlaff, who oversees government affairs at the American Association for Cancer Research. “Now it’s something that we can take to Capitol Hill. Here are projects that can be funded and should be funded and will help us get to where we need to go.”
Biden helped spur the moonshot last October, while announcing he would not run for president. He said in his speech, with Obama at his side, that he would have liked to have been the president who cured cancer and called for a “moonshot” to end the disease as it currently exists. Biden’s son, Beau, died at age 46 in May 2015 of brain cancer.
Obama formally announced the cancer moonshot task force in his State of the Union address in January and appointed Biden to lead it. The vice president has traveled across the country and the world in recent months, soliciting ideas for improving cancer research and how the federal government can facilitate it.
The White House has set the goal of achieving 10 years of progress in cancer research in five years’ time. The blue ribbon panel’s recommendations, assuming their approval by the advisory board, will contribute to a final comprehensive report to be released at the end of the year that will seek to set a new agenda for cancer research in the United States.