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By: Clinton F. Stewart

Clinton StewartThe United States is headed to the moon again—well, not quite. In January, during his final State of the Union address, President Barack Obama announced a new national effort to cure cancer, and, he “…put Joe in charge of Mission Control.”  That’s Vice President Joe Biden who first coined the term a “moonshot to cure cancer” in his Rose Garden speech, where he indicated he would not run for the Democratic nomination for president in 2016. At that time he was already on a mission because in May 2015, his older son Beau Biden had died of brain cancer at the young age of 46. So when President Obama handed over Mission Control to Biden, it was a natural fit.

In his first address regarding the Cancer Moonshot, he stated that he planned to do two things: “1.) Increase resources—both public and private—to fight cancer,” and “2.) Break down silos and bring all cancer fighters together—to work together, share information, and end cancer as we know it.” Biden’s ultimate “goal of this initiative is simple—to double the rate of progress. To make a decade worth of advances in five years.”

Although a simple, straightforward goal, and one that everyone could embrace, he quickly found that it had many critics. Cancer researchers have expressed concern about the use of the term “moonshot” to describe the campaign, saying it doesn’t capture the complexity of cancer. “Cancer is still largely a scientific challenge, and when people use engineering language, it can create wildly unrealistic expectations,” said William Kaelin Jr., professor of medicine at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston. Funding for the moonshot is another hot-button topic, some saying that funding is totally inadequate comparing the $1 billion pledged to what was spent to get a man on the moon ( approx. $200 billion in today’s dollars), others complaining that cancer is getting an unfair amount of the federal health research budget, and then still others say that only $195 million of the approximately $1 billion is a sure thing—the other $755 million has been requested from Congress in fiscal 2017. Lastly, some have criticized the moonshot for focusing on a “cure” for cancer versus finding ways to prevent cancer.

It might be easy to be critical of the effort or what it might accomplish; however, academic pharmaceutical scientists involved in cancer research will be at the epicenter of this initiative.  For example, agreements have been made between the National Cancer Institute (NCI) and drug companies to make access to drugs easier, a pilot project in the Department of Veterans Affairs that will yield data to be shared with the biomedical community, and the Partnership for Accelerating Cancer Therapies (PACT) was created with a goal of paying for early stage cancer research and freely sharing the results. With initiatives like these, the Moonshot is likely to make NIH and foundation grants more accessible to research institutions.

Industrial pharmaceutical scientists who are involved at all stages of the cancer drug development process have important roles in mission control too. Developing public-private partnerships consisting of participants from all aspects of health care (e.g., government, pharma, insurance industries) will be essential to making progress against cancer.

So my answer to the straw man question, “Should pharmaceutical scientists be in Mission Control of the Cancer Moonshot initiative?” is a resounding YES! And the primary reason is that our patients are the ones to benefit from our participation. I’m excited about the new initiative and hope that you will find some way to participate in Mission Control as well.

Views expressed in the blog are the authors and not those of St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital.

Clinton F. Stewart, Pharm.D., is a full member in the Department of Pharmaceutical Sciences at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital and Professor of Pediatrics and Clinical Pharmacy at the University of Tennessee, Memphis.