In the last year, there have been a lot of exciting advancements in cancer research. The Cancer Moonshot Initiative, led by former Vice President Joe Biden, has been a catalyst for many of them. The program was first announced during the State of the Union Address last January. It marked a groundbreaking collaboration among private industries like pharmaceutical companies, government agencies, and various researchers to accelerate cancer research and hopefully find a cure.
These public-private partnerships have made a big difference already in research efforts. Most recently, the National Cancer Institute announced an effort to allow researchers to access new drugs more quickly for preclinical or clinical trial studies. This could lead to faster development of new treatments for all kinds of cancers, including rare ones like mesothelioma.
The NCI Formulary Helps Researchers
The National Cancer Institute’s new drug formulary, dubbed the NCI Formulary, was launched with the hopes of allowing researchers to spend less time in talks with pharmaceutical companies and more time actually researching these potential treatments.
The formulary is a partnership between the NCI, biotechnology companies, and pharmaceutical companies to create a list of agents available for clinical trial use. At its launch, the formulary already had 15 targeted agents from 6 pharmaceutical companies available for researchers to investigate. NCI says they are actively pursuing other companies to continue adding more therapies to the list. They expect to at least double the number of companies and therapies available by the end of the year.
Before this new formulary, researchers had to go through an often lengthy negotiation process with the pharmaceutical companies to be able to access these agents. According to the NCI, sometimes these negotiations could take 18 months! If a researcher was interested in testing combination therapies with drugs from two different companies, the process could become even more complicated.
In this new system, the NCI will act as an intermediary between investigators and pharma to streamline the process. After the company approves use of the agent, researchers will be able to work with any available agent on the list in their own clinical trials, even in combinations with agents from different companies.
The NCI Formulary will complement another public-private partnership set to launch sometime this year from the National Institutes of Health. The Partnership to Accelerate Cancer Therapies, or PACT, will bring together cancer researchers, the FDA, biopharmaceutical companies, and others to investigate patient responses to cancer therapies, specifically honing in on immunotherapy. PACT will also create a database for selecting and testing new combination therapies based on their findings.
Both of these initiatives will hopefully mean the ability to bring better treatment methods to patients sooner.
Cancer Moonshot Milestones
Since its inception, the initiative has made a lot of great progress. Last October, Biden released a report highlighting some of the accomplishments and paving the road ahead. He laid out many goals for this year and beyond including more partnerships and collaborations, faster development of and access to treatment options, and better access to data and research.
Improved Data Sharing
So far, the initiative has already made some strides towards achieving his goals, especially in data sharing. The NCI Genomic Data Commons, or GDC, has been an ongoing project to continue advancing researchers’ access to information.
The GDC contains numerous cancer studies from researchers and organizations all over the world, not just NCI research programs. Since the summer, the database has added information for 16,000 more patients. Before June, GDC held data for around 14,000 patients, but it wasn’t easily accessible to clinicians or researchers.
The NCI is now working continuously to allow free use of this information for researchers, as well as adding new features to help analyze the data more easily. Amazon and Microsoft have also joined the efforts by donating cloud storage for GDC at no cost for several years, allowing for widespread ease of access.
Diagnostic and Treatment Solutions
Another project spearheaded by the Department of Defense (DoD) will focus on improving diagnostic techniques. Using their vast cancer registry database and collection of biological samples, they hope to work with researchers to uncover connections to the earliest signs of cancer. As they digitize their repository containing millions of unique patient samples, researchers will work on machine learning algorithms and image analysis to improve diagnosis.
The Department of Energy (DOE) has also partnered with NCI on three projects that will help understand cancer development and how to determine the best treatment method for individual patients. Four DOE laboratories along with different departments of the NCI will be working on creating algorithms and tools to advance computing and data science to better understand the biology of cancer. Their goal is to ultimately improve precision medicine.
The Road Ahead
These are just some of the projects that have come out of the Cancer Moonshot so far, with more expected to launch sometime this year. The 21st Century Cures Act secured $1.8 billion to continue funding these research efforts for the next several years, which will hopefully preserve the Moonshot’s momentum.
With so many promising research projects and more organizations joining the efforts, the Moonshot might just reach Biden’s goal of ending cancer as we know it.