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Feature:
Cancer Research

Cancer Moonshot Aims to Double Pace of Research

During his State of the Union address in January, President Obama announced the “Cancer Moonshot” initiative to speed up cancer research. The initiative aims to make more therapies available to more patients sooner. It also seeks to improve our ability to prevent cancer and detect it at an early stage.

NIH MedlinePlus magazine sat down with Dinah Singer, PhD, one of the three co-chairs of the Cancer Moonshot Initiative’s Blue Ribbon Panel and Director of the National Cancer Institute’s Division of Cancer Biology, to learn about its progress.

Dr. Dinah Singer, co-chair of the National Cancer Moonshot Initiative Blue Ribbon Panel
Photo: Bill Branson

What should the public know about the goals of the Moonshot?

The President’s memo outlined three goals. One is to speed up progress regarding cancer. Number two is to help all parts of the cancer community join forces—from academics to the private sector and government agencies. The third goal is to increase data sharing across these sectors.

We have been charged with speeding up our knowledge of cancer—the basis of the disease and how it progresses. This will depend on expanding and supporting new research. The President’s memo says we should do in five years what we’d normally do in 10.

We ended up having more than 150 people from the cancer community involved in making an action plan of research options that would benefit cancer patients to better prevent, diagnose, and treat cancer.

What areas have been identified for early research under this new initiative?

Rather than look at specific types of cancer, we’re looking more broadly at global barriers. For instance, we’re looking at access to clinical trials. Today, only about five percent of all cancer patients are enrolled in clinical trials. One of the recommended actions is to develop a network that will engage patients directly and increase their access to studies.

That way, any patient anywhere in the country can register, have their tumor genotyped, and be pre-registered for a clinical trial for which they are eligible. This creates a database of research and clinical information to help us learn more about the different kinds of cancers.

“It takes all cancer patients to cure one patient.”
—Dr. Dinah Singer, co-chair, Cancer Moonshot Initiative Blue Ribbon Panel

Another recommendation proposes to screen cancer patients for the presence of genes that predispose them to cancer. If the patient is a carrier, we could offer their close relatives a chance to be screened for that gene and allow early detection of a cancer. This has the potential to save hundreds of thousands of lives.

Other cancers that we focus on are those in people who don’t have a cancer-related gene. In many cases, those cancers can be prevented through means that we know work. For instance, we know cervical cancer can be prevented with HPV shots. Quitting smoking reduces lung cancer and early screening reduces colon cancer.

Most people think, “We’ve already done huge amounts with tobacco cessation,” but there are huge gaps. For instance, one gap is in people who have been diagnosed with lung cancer. There are very few programs to help those patients stop smoking.

Enhanced data sharing is a theme running through all these actions. To paraphrase, it takes all cancer patients to cure one patient. What I mean is that in order to understand any one tumor, we have to look at thousands to predict how the one will respond. To do that, we have to be able to share data.

What are some approaches that could boost data sharing?

What I’ve found is there is a lot more interest in sharing data than people presume. The difficulties are more technical. Different researchers use different formats. This is what we’ll need to address.

An incentive is that if I share my data, you’ll share your data. Together, we’ll accomplish a lot more. Drug companies will want to share some of their data to be able to work with scientists. The idea is to link everyone up and promote data sharing.

What else can you tell us about clinical trials?

The idea is to have a network where cancer patients can register. In terms of clinical trials, immunotherapy is an exciting new tool in the treatment of cancer. Immunotherapy is a treatment designed to boost the body’s natural defenses to fight cancer.

I’ve been watching its development for 30 or 40 years. It has had a quantum leap in the past few years. We’ll need a lot of clinical trials to understand the tumors that respond and the tumors that don’t respond to this treatment.

Many times, patients respond well to a standard of care. Other times, they’ll respond and then relapse. The question again is why? Can we predict who will respond and benefit from therapy and who will not? The action here is having tumors biopsied, storing those samples, and analyzing them in future research. These would be small clinical trials because they would be very focused. But they would be very good at helping us find which patients are going to benefit from what therapy.

As someone who has been in cancer research for more than four decades, what does the Cancer Moonshot mean to you?

The way our knowledge has exploded has offered so many new opportunities for people with creative ideas to move the field forward. What we’re limited by at this point is our resources. The passion and commitment of the research community is amazing and inspiring.

As a research scientist running a lab, it’s been exciting to see the cancer community come together because of this initiative. There’s lots of hope that the Moonshot will take off. We’ve outlined goals and begun strategizing to guide NCI’s planning going forward.

We had a website called Cancer Research Ideas Opens new window. Anyone could submit thoughts and ideas about cancer research. Between that, email, and other outreach, we had 1,600 responses, all of which we read and considered in our deliberations. Although the Cancer Research Ideas site is not accepting new ideas, the ideas that were posted still can be viewed.

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Fall 2016 Issue: Volume 11 Number 3 Page 2