How can we tackle the world’s biggest killer – cancer? This is the mission of US Vice-President, Joe Biden, who has called for a “moonshot” to find a cure for the disease.
The Vice-President recently penned a piece for the Forum’s blog platform, Agenda, about the moonshot campaign. He has, of course, been touched personally by the disease – his son Beau Biden died of brain cancer in 2015, aged just 46.
“It’s personal for me. But it’s also personal for nearly every American, and millions of people around the world. We all know someone who has had cancer, or is fighting to beat it. They’re our family, friends, and co-workers…
…And the goal of this initiative is simple — to double the rate of progress. To make a decade worth of advances in five years. Here’s how we can do it:
Over the next year, I will lead a dedicated, combined effort by governments, private industry, researchers, physicians, patients, and philanthropies to target investment, coordinate across silos, and increase access to information for everyone in the cancer community.
Here’s what that means: The Federal government will do everything it possibly can — through funding, targeted incentives, and increased private-sector coordination — to support research and enable progress.We’ll encourage leading cancer centers to reach unprecedented levels of cooperation, so we can learn more about this terrible disease and how to stop it in its tracks.”
The White House’s programme has bipartisan appeal, as detailed in this piece from Fast Company, which states:
“In 2015, House Republicans and Democrats overwhelmingly passed the 21st Century Cures Act, which raises funding and lowers barriers for audacious medical research. (The Senate is considering its own version.) The bill's sponsor (and Chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee), Fred Upton, tweeted his support for the Obama-Biden effort.”
“Increased exposure to risks such as tobacco, physical inactivity and unhealthy dietary patterns are making noncommunicable diseases (NCDs) such as cancer and diabetes the number one killer globally. As the world’s population ages, deaths from NCDs are projected to rise from 38 million in 2012 to 52 million annually by 2030.”
The Fourth Industrial Revolution, the key theme of this year’s annual meeting, is predicted to have a huge impact on our health. Arnaud Bernaert, Head of Global Health and Healthcare at the World Economic Forum, discusses health and the Fourth Industrial Revolution in this blog piece. He wrote:
“Think about a world where science would repair the causes of diseases as opposed to reducing the effects of symptoms. Think about a world where cell regeneration science would help diabetes or renal failure patients enjoy disease-free lives as they benefit from early transplants of artificial pancreas and kidney.
“These are the promises of the fourth industrial revolution when it comes to healthcare.”
Vice-President Biden talks about the sheer number of people affected by the disease, as well as his own family’s experience.
There is no silver bullet to curing cancer, the VP says. Multiple scientists, organisations and stakeholders are involved. However, we are at an inflection point and research is on the cusp of some incredible breakthroughs.
Big data is playing a significant role. Tapping the treasure trove of data held by hospitals and other institutions could be key to finding a cure for cancer. With advances in supercomputers, this data is being synched up for the first time in human history. If we can make this readable to scientists, we can speed up research advances and possible treatments. Should this data be more widely available? This is a question that the VP wants to put to today’s panel, and it’s a theme that runs throughout the session.
Personalised medicine, for example, could play a huge role, but what about privacy? One way around this is patient consent, points out panel member Charles Sawyers, but many people may be reluctant to share their details.
Franis S Collins adds: “We need that big data to be accessible. It’s not enough to say that we are in a big data era for cancer. We also need to be in a big data access era.”
David Agus, meanwhile, stresses the importance of looking at outliers in data and research. Elephants, for example, are 40% bigger than humans, but they don’t get cancer. Evolution figured out a way to avoid it. How?
Agus also believes data language needs to be standardized, something the VP strongly agrees with.
The VP also points to the fact that only 5% of cancer patients in the US – and he imagines the number is similar around the world – end up in a clinical trial. How can we reduce the cost of trials and expand access to them? This is an issue that must be addressed.
The problem with clinical trials, says José Baselga, isn’t just that they are expensive, but that patients don’t know about them, so we have to find a better way to inform patients that this is an option.
Biden also talks about so-called "combination therapy", which is increasingly seen as central to fighting cancerous tumours, but which can be costly and slow to come to market. The VP promises that the US will speed up the approval of promising new drug combos. You can read more on this story in this Reuters article by journalist Ben Hirschler.
Biden asks the panel of experts the following question: What is the most important element that is needed in the battle against cancer? What is the biggest impediment, or the biggest opportunity?
Personalised medicine could change the course of cancer, says Paula Hammond. But one challenge is how to get something that is potentially toxic through the body to a tumour, without harming the patient. We need to find ways to package these systems and deliver them. This is something that nanotechnology can help us with – protecting the body while getting the drug to where it needs to go.
Baselga discusses the importance of sequencing of the genome of every cancer tumour, and how this is becoming more affordable. This is giving us critical information of which therapies are benefitting patients, saving their lives in some cases.
Cancers themselves, says Nobel Laureate Elizabeth Blackburn, are a huge impediment. They are wily ecosystems that are changing all the time. We need big data on every person’s tumour.
Sawyers agrees, pointing out that his mother died of a cancer five years ago that would have been preventable today.
Bill McDermott says we need to keep patients in mind as we search for a cure. The system of record keeping is broken, and needs to be fixed. This could help patients live a longer life and help the scientific community cure cancer.
Delos Cosgrove highlights the need to prevent cancer in the first place. Reducing the number of people smoking, lowering obesity rates and early screening will help us to prevent or catch a lot of cancers.
Finally, says Biden, it’s important to explain the situation to patients in a way that puts them at ease. We also need to educate the public in simple terms as to why we need more of their tax dollars and why this fight is so important.