When former President Barack Obama announced the launch of the Cancer Moonshot Initiative in January 2016, it set into motion a pretty lofty goal: to accomplish 10 years of cancer research in only five years while attempting to bring about the end of cancer as we know it. This is an incredible undertaking and one requiring the cooperation of a variety of groups, including the government, drug companies, researchers, doctors and even patients to join together and share resources. The good news is the project is following a model that has been proven successful in other scientific realms, and is gaining popularity for its unique approach to problem solving.
Since the announcement, one of the most intriguing pieces of the Cancer Moonshot involves the concept of data sharing and using the power of big data itself to make connections more easily and effectively. The idea of using shared information throughout the healthcare process means that more people have access to use data for their own research, as well as the opportunity to offer their own findings that might be of use to others. Breaking down the walls built up by each sector and focusing those collective resources to achieve a common goal is essential to moving forward.
The push for more advancements in understanding and approaching cancer care has helped change the dynamics of patient treatment overall. Patients, who were often not heavily included in the development of new treatments and drugs, now play an active role in the process and can provide real-time information to doctors. However, the idea of open-source researching and scientific development is nothing new. In 1990, the United States, Germany, the United Kingdom and three other countries embarked on the world’s largest collaborative project to date in an attempt to map the human genome. The 13-year project allowed researchers from a variety of organizations to gain access to common information, speeding up the learning process and completing the work two years ahead of schedule.
Although the Human Genome Project was a multinational endeavor, the Cancer Moonshot Initiative shares many of the same attributes, including the use of big data to allow every party involved equal access to valuable information. In a February 2016 statement, Obama cited the need to break down institutional barriers, “including those in the public and private sectors, to enable maximum knowledge gained and patients helped.” He also suggested the power of big data could be used to learn more about genomic abnormalities, a former stated goal of the Human Genome Project more than a decade prior.
With a massive influx of money and information, the Cancer Moonshot collaborations are already beginning to pay dividends, especially in terms of using the data gathered efficiently and effectively. The growth of open data sharing is part of a renewed interest in interdisciplinary research, drawing in experts from diverse backgrounds to tackle a common issue. Since the mid-1980s, the number of interdisciplinary studies and papers being produced have steadily increased in both social and natural sciences.
But why does this matter when it comes to cancer research? Allowing researchers to fill in the blanks left unanswered in other scientific areas can help the general populace come up with better answers to treat cancer and other diseases more holistically.
Interdisciplinary research, especially in terms of the Cancer Moonshot, takes a massive amount of money, time and resources, but the wait is worth it. This type of research can be very difficult as researchers must rely on others’ strengths and inherent abilities as experts in their fields, as well as be able to comprehend what information is relevant and when to apply it to the problem. However, by making use of this model, studies and insights made are often much more favorably looked at by outside disciplines and those within their chosen field. By making use of diverse scientific backgrounds, the world saw some of the biggest achievements in history, ranging from the development of the first atomic bomb to artificial intelligence. The Cancer Moonshot is proving to be no different and is taking full advantage of every available resource at its fingertips.
The cancer mystery is a problem no one has yet been able to solve on their own, so teamwork is crucial to the project’s sustained success. The government has invested millions of dollars to shore up research coming from a wide array of agencies, including the Department of Defense and Veteran Affairs. Those resources and dollars are also funneled into grants for researchers to find answers and build easier ways to access and decipher data, including through the use of artificial intelligence. For example, NVIDIA, a visual technologies company, is working alongside the National Cancer Institute and the Department of Energy on an artificial intelligence called CANDLE, or Cancer Distributed Learning Environment. The stated goals of the partnership are to “expedite individual treatments, discover new treatments faster, and more accurately predict how each patient’s cancer will evolve.”
Patients are openly able to get involved in the cancer research process, too. The Blue Ribbon Panel, a group of scientific experts advising the National Cancer Advisory Board laid out a series of recommendations to help bring patients into the research process at various points, including establishing a network for patient involvement. Patients are essential for this approach because they can monitor and explain their symptoms and side effects. The front-line information they provide helps researchers develop new therapies and treatment strategies, along with building out a more detailed knowledge base to determine what treatments work for what cancers and whom they work for.
As cliché as it might sound, advancements in cancer research and treatment development give everyone a reason to celebrate. Whether you have battled cancer yourself or know someone who has fought it, the need for reliable treatments and better information is paramount to understanding the disease and its impacts on the human body.
Doctors and patients benefit from the increased focus on cancer research in other ways too. As part of the Cancer Moonshot, clinical trials are easier for patients to find and apply for, while doctors now have more options available to them for experimental treatment plans. There’s also the recently launched NCI Formulary, which, according to the agency, “will enable investigators at NCI-designated Cancer Centers to have quicker access to approved and investigational agents for use in preclinical studies and cancer clinical trials.” The public-private partnership includes large-scale pharmaceutical companies like Eli Lilly and Company and Bristol-Myers Squibb.
These trials are providing needed answers to not only develop better and more accurate diagnostic tools and treatments for more common cancers, but rarer ones as well, like mesothelioma. For example, by having all of the trial information contained in one location online, mesothelioma patients can find trials more quickly and help generate results in real-time. Keytruda, an immunotherapy drug that has shown promise in treating melanoma and a few other cancers, is now in mesothelioma trials and showing some success in certain patients. Mesothelioma is a rare disease, only affecting about 2,000-3,000 people in the United States each year. But by creating and curating an open market of available trials, mesothelioma patients have the opportunity to extend their own lifespans and use their own information to help future patients as well.
The Cancer Moonshot Initiative is a monumental undertaking, despite the amount of money, people and resources the government and a multitude of private organizations are putting toward better understanding cancer. While the thought of a cure coming within the next few years is undoubtedly a long shot, the strides made so far continue inching us closer to the day we can effectively treat the disease with fewer side effects and better patient outcomes. The good far outweighs the bad, and no matter what the final result is when the Moonshot is completed in 2020, we’ll be much further along than when we started.