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Greg Simon has worn many hats: in industry, at think tanks, and in and around the White House. Though he once worked under Al Gore as a domestic policy adviser, among other posts, in recent years his focus has narrowed to cancer — largely because he is a survivor himself.

Simon has spent the past 15 years looking for ways to help cancer patients get the treatments they need, advocating for more streamlined clinical trials, and finding ways to hasten the bench-to-bedside process of basic science research. He joined the Milken Institute’s health care think tank FasterCures in 2003, intrigued by the idea of making the medical research engine more efficient. But in 2014, Simon received a cancer diagnosis of his own — and is now in remission from chronic lymphocytic leukemia.

These days, Simon is heading up the Biden Cancer Initiative — tapped by former Vice President Joe Biden to find ways to improve the broader system of cancer care.


STAT caught up with Simon at the recent Milken Institute Global Conference to talk about cancer and moonshots. His comments have been edited for length and clarity.

Tell me about the Biden Cancer Initiative.

We’re trying to create the cancer research and care system that people think we already have. People think they can share medical records between hospitals. They assume the cancer medical research community has a standard lexicon to describe pathology and tumors. They do not. We have a very customized, individual, historic system that has not changed much from the late 1950s. So we want to focus on how to take the brakes off — and improve data sharing, data standards, and make clinical trials easier to recruit.


You headed up the cancer moonshot at the White House under President Obama. Does that still exist in some form?

There isn’t work being done at the White House anymore on the moonshot, but there’s work being done at all the agencies that were part of the moonshot. As the executive director of the task force, our job was to provoke, cajole, convince, and inspire the agencies to take this on and do something wonderful. And they all did. All of which is still going on.

It may not be going as fast as we’d have liked if we stayed in office. It may not be the same way we’d have done it. But it’s still the moonshot program, and it’s still over and above the basic portfolio. Other agencies: NASA, DOE, VA, NEA, Commerce, Patent Office, NEA, EPA, USDA — whatever they’ve promised to do, they’re still doing. It’s just uncoordinated.

Is there any specific effort from the Trump administration to support cancer research?

To the White House, medicine is a question of insurance and Obamacare. To the rest of us, medicine is about health. The insurance is critical, but we tried to interest the White House in the cancer moonshot, and they weren’t interested.

The NIH, over the past year and a half, has been rolling out more programs that partner with industry, outsourcing some of the work. Do you think that’s happening because of an administration change, or because it’s just a good idea?

That started a long time ago. That belonged to the Obama administration. NIH is working with industry to streamline access to approved drugs for combination trials, and a collaboration with industry in pre-competitive research, called PACT — allowing the NIH and industry to work together to save a lot of time and money. These things went on long before the Trump administration.

What do you think NIH could be doing better?

I’ve written entire reports on this.

It’s great they’re getting the money from Congress. That’s awesome. Their budget’s gone from $30 billion to $37 billion in the past few years.

NIH needs to … I’ll just go through the list: Fund younger people. Fund riskier research. Fund more diverse research. Create an intramural program on campus that’s truly using crown-jewel, rare technologies that are hard for universities to replicate. Do one-of-a-kind things that can’t be done anywhere else. NIH needs to stop funding just intramural researchers who live in a university environment on the NIH campus. I’d say it’s a Division 2 or Division 3 university. But we don’t need another university — we have thousands of universities that get NIH funding.

You propose, then, that the NIH look a bit more like the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, taking on only ultra-high-tech projects. Why?

So what I think: We need an intramural program to focus on really difficult questions, and make it a DARPA-like environment. People come in for three to five years to work on something that will change the field, and then go back to their jobs. As it is, you have a lot of tenured people who are doing good work, but they don’t have the mindset you have at DARPA where the project is to do that, and you’ve got two years to do it. As opposed to, you’ll be here for 30 years, what do you want to do?

You’ve hopped around in the past 30 years. Worn many hats. What do you think you’ll be able to accomplish at the Biden Initiative that you haven’t at previous posts, for instance at FasterCures, a nonprofit that aims to speed up the medical research system?

FasterCures is about all diseases. Cancer is an important part of that, but so are rare diseases and Alzheimer’s, etc. So it had a broad focus. The Biden initiative combines the focus of FasterCures to create a more efficient system with the need for the country as a whole to take on this challenge.

What started as the moonshot program has certainly become a movement. The extent of public support and interest and involvement is far more than I ever got with FasterCures, even though we have similar goals. And I attribute a lot of that to Vice President Biden and the story of his son — it captured the imaginations of the world. And with FasterCures, we had to build our stage — cancer moonshot started with the White House State of the Union.

  • George Meredith MD

    Consider: the breast cancer death rate per 100,000 US women is essentially the same today as it was in 1970. The treatment then was some type of mastectomy and adjunctive radiotherapy (hopefully 5000 Rads as opposed today’ more dangerous 6500 Rads).

    Surgeons knew back then that adjunctive chemotherapy did not appreciably improve the 5 and 10 year survival rates and so no adjunctive chemotherapy was given back then.

    Today, we have genetic testing, the Cancer Treatment Centers of America, a plethora of adjunctive chemotherapeutic agents and a host of oncologists who can cite statistics that indicate that the new chemotherapy that they have just been licensed to use….why this new chemotherapeutic agent offers real hope. Emphasis in the words fear and hope!

    Go back and look at chemotherapy in Cecil and Loeb’s textbook of Internal Medicine circa 1970 and you will find….surprise….surprise….the cancers that were being cured by chemotherapy back then, are the same ones that being cured today. Except for Lance Armstrong’s testicular carcinoma and perhaps the rare Burkitt’s Lymphoma
    The Hodgkins Disease, some lymphomas, childhood luekemias are the same cancers that were being cured back in the seventies and about in the same proportions . But not the breast, lung, prostate and pancreatic cancers.

    Read my lips! The adjunctive chemotherapy that oncologists are pushing off onto an incredibly naïve American public, do not work! Do not produce cancer cures! Play on patient fears. And simply feed patients’ false hope. Prolong their misery. And wreck and bankrupt their families!

    Wakeup America! This is but the tip of the iceberg! Many of you are being scammed by or are about to be scammed by your local oncologist!

    George Meredith MD
    Virginia Beach


  • Greg Simon
    read your article in the Newsmax Magazine
    You are in the dark on cancer treatment and research.
    www. Hippocartes For over 60-year Hippocrates and been treating and curing thousand of people of cancer by diet. Cancer is a diet
    caused disease and can be cured by diet.
    contact Hippocrataes and spend a minimum of a week of your time there.
    Listen to my talk on YOUTUBE “How to Live cancer free – Dr. Martin, also Dr. Michael Klapper talks on YOUTUBE.

  • Cancer Moonshot is a program of “action man”, “Let make the another small step… and we will winnnnnn!” That is a fault. “Action man” can only widen the progress. Only “Mind man” can deepen it! (“man” is easily replaced by “women”). For last thirty years I note in several posts and in local Georgian articles you can not achieve cure of cancer on this way. And you will try and try and I will watch and watch how your offsprings will try and try on this way, and I will watch and watch….

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