Last week, both houses of Congress passed the 21st Century Cures Act, a sweeping piece of legislation that will overhaul the way that medical research is done. Given the strong bipartisan support behind the bill, there is great anticipation as the country awaits President Obama’s signature, which is certain to come soon.
One of the most exciting aspects of the bill is the funding that is being provided to research treatments cancer along with other diseases. Upon passage of the bill, the White House released a statement, in which President Obama stated, “We are now one step closer to ending cancer as we know it, unlocking cures for diseases like Alzheimer’s, and helping people seeking treatment for opioid addiction finally get the help they need.”
Cures Act and the Cancer Moonshot
Among other things, the recently passed legislation provides for ongoing funding of the Cancer Moonshot Initiative, currently being headed by Vice President Joe Biden. Securing this funding is a big step to preserving the momentum already underway with the initiative, especially as President-Elect Trump is in the middle of announcing appointments and setting priorities for his new administration.
Specifically, the bill provides for “$1.8 billion in new resources to accelerate discoveries” according to President Obama’s statement. This funding will be meted out by the National Institutes of Health (NIH), which is currently overseeing many aspects of the Cancer Moonshot program.
While there are many areas of focus for the moonshot – from prevention to vaccines to finding potential cures – the most promising development from the perspective of finding a cure is immunotherapy. Drugs like Keytruda (pembrolizumab), Avastin (bevacizumab), tremelimumab, and similar therapies are showing to be effective in helping individuals with mesothelioma and other forms of cancer live longer. While none of these have yet been approved by the FDA for treatment of mesothelioma, they are being studied in clinical trials and elsewhere. For example, last summer the National Comprehensive Cancer Network included bevacizumab in their guidelines for treating unresectable mesothelioma (alongside chemotherapy).
With the passage of the 21st Century Cures Act, there will be even more opportunities to continue this research into immunotherapies and other emerging treatments. Even research done on other types of cancer will ultimately help mesothelioma patients, insofar as a big part of the Cancer Moonshot is focused on implementing better and faster ways to share data and results with other researchers. As insights come to light about how treatments are working for other types of cancer, mesothelioma researchers may be able to draw on those understandings and apply them directly.
How Other Provisions Affect Mesothelioma Research
While funding of cancer research is the most direct way that the 21st Century Cures Act helps mesothelioma patients, there are other provisions that will impact them as well. These have to do with the broader overhaul of how medical research is being done, rather than directly affecting cancer and mesothelioma specifically.
One of the provisions is the funding going toward precision medicine, another medical initiative started during the Obama administration. The idea is to develop ways to treat individual patients based on their specific genes. As we develop a greater understanding of how the body works, down to the level of the most complex interactions between various proteins, nutrients, and genetic markers, doctors are better able to provide more precise treatment plans that are based on an individual’s body chemistry.
Another provision updates the authority of the U.S. Food & Drug Administration to handle “genetically targeted” drugs, which includes both immunotherapy and gene therapy treatments for cancer. The process for submitting applications for these types of drugs will be simplified, allowing pharmaceutical companies to rely on data previously submitted for similar types of drugs. This means the FDA will be able to review, and hopefully approve, potentially life-saving treatments for mesothelioma and other rare diseases much faster than in the past.
A third update to existing medical laws includes the broadening of support for medical records, allowing more organizations and agencies to access and use them. This will allow doctors and researchers to see trends among similar types of cancer (and other diseases) that could lead to new revelations about potential therapies.
While there are critics of the 21st Century Cures Act – some people believe it’s a concession to drug companies, who will benefit from the faster FDA approvals and in other ways – the fact that the bill has broad bipartisan support is encouraging. Whatever the case, there is a real need to change how medical research, and cancer research in particular, takes place today. This new bill moves us in a good direction toward making that research more effective.