Liquid biopsies. A “groundbreaking” Defense Department study. Partnerships with Lyft and Uber for patient transportation.
The White House’s cancer moonshot, the future of which Vice President Joe Biden outlined in a new report on Monday, has a lot of moving parts.
The report details nearly 20 projects that are already underway or soon will be in the moonshot’s first year and another two dozen planned for its second year and beyond. Major themes include harnessing big data, sharing research among scientists, and expanding preventive measures like the HPV vaccine and colorectal cancer screening. Some of these efforts will be run by the government; others are being led by the private sector.
Here are three big projects that caught our eye.
Diagnosing cancer with only a blood test
Researchers have long tried to develop a blood test that could diagnose cancer, and figures including Jeff Bezos and Bill Gates have invested in projects to meet that goal.
The White House announced Monday the “Blood Profiling Atlas” pilot, a partnership between government researchers, academics, and pharmaceutical companies to speed up development of those tests.
The plan is to make freely available the raw datasets of cancer cells and DNA that circulate through the body, merging the work of 20 entities working in the field. Major institutions and companies like Eli Lily, AstraZeneca, and the Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center are participating. The hope is that combining this data would allow scientists working on blood diagnostic tests to make breakthroughs faster.
The atlas could eventually be recognized by the Food and Drug Administration as a source of valid scientific evidence for the approval of these tests, further accelerating their way to the market.
Despite the widespread interest in liquid biopsies, it remains an open question whether they will be as effective as proponents hope. And, as Forbes noted in a report on the project, one of the major players in the field, Grail, does not appear to be participating in the White House’s initiative.
Understanding cancer before it becomes cancer
The Defense Department will undertake a longitudinal study on biomarkers, the biological signs that precede cancer, in service members. The Pentagon already collects data on personnel diagnosed with cancer, and has about 250,000 samples dating back 25 years.
One broader goal of the scientific community has been to better understand those precancer indicators, which could lead to better screening of people at risk for cancer and earlier diagnoses.
The department’s research will also be combined with work being done by the Environmental Protection Agency to look for correlations with environmental factors that could be contributing to the development of cancer.
Bringing the Space Race to the cancer moonshot
Radiation therapy isn’t the new kid on the block anymore — not like immunotherapy, a favorite of the vice president’s — but NASA and the National Cancer Institute are nonetheless forging a partnership to study a new iteration called particle beam radiotherapy. The goal is to better target doses of radiation to the cancer cells, thereby minimizing the unpleasant side effects that often come with radiation treatment.
NASA and NCI are uniting two initiatives that they have been pursuing separately. NASA has been studying the effect of such particles on the body so they can better protect astronauts traveling in space, and NCI has been researching particle therapies.
The new partnership will allow the agencies to share data and biospecimens from those projects to better understand the effectiveness of those treatments.