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Cancer 'Moonshot' Plan: Sharing Knowledge Can Speed Cures

A few carrots, a few sticks, supercomputers, and a faster approval process for new drugs all got floated at the national pep rally for the moonshot.
Image: Joe Biden speaks at the Cancer Moonshot Summit
Vice President Joe Biden speaks Wednesday at the Cancer Moonshot Summit at Howard University in Washington, D.C.Carolyn Kaster / AP

The White House sponsored a giant national cancer "moonshot" pep rally Wednesday, organizing more than 270 events aimed at boosting support for the effort to speed up cancer research.

Government agencies, academic researchers, cancer advocacy groups and companies all pledged cash and cooperation to get past competitive barriers that experts say often slow advances in research of the disease.

"I believe we can do in the next five years what would ordinarily take 10," said Vice President Joe Biden, who headlined one event at Howard University in Washington, D.C. “Time matters. Days matter. Minutes matter.”

Various agencies are playing a role: IBM and the Department of Energy volunteered supercomputers to crunch data that can help focus cancer treatments more precisely; the Food and Drug Administration set up a new center to speed approvals of cancer drugs; and the Patent and Trademark Office launched a fast-track approval program to encourage development of innovative new drugs.

Related: Biden Looks for a Cure for Cancer

"I believe we can do in the next five years what would ordinarily take 10."

Biden, who took himself out of consideration for the presidential race after his son Beau died of brain cancer last year, said sharing information is vital and he threatened to get tough with cancer researchers who are ignoring a federal rule requiring them to submit results to a public database within a year.

Related: Promising Drugs Stoke Talk of Cancer Cures

“I'm going to find out if it's true, and if it's true, I'm going to cut funding," Biden said. "That's a promise."

Cancer is the No. 2 killer in the U.S. It has replaced heart disease as the No. 1 cause of death in 21 states and it will kill nearly 600,000 people this year, the American Cancer Society says, as about 1.68 million Americans will be diagnosed with some form of it.

President Barack Obama launched the “moonshot” initiative in February with the ultimate goal of finding a cure for cancer. He is asking for close to $1 billion in extra spending over the next two years, and a badly divided and mostly deadlocked Congress has so far only approved some of it.

Biden also attacked a profit motive that drives drugmakers to charges hundreds of thousands of dollars for some of their therapies — including hiked prices for older drugs.

Related: Time is Right for Moonshot, Experts Say

“Tell me. Tell me. Tell me. What is the justification for that?” the vice president asked.

Federal agencies will work to make it easier for companies and researchers to share information, while making sure companies can still make a profit.

Here are some ways that would be done:

  • The National Cancer Institute (NCI) is working on an agreement with 20 to 30 drug companies to give labs access to various experimental drugs and compounds without having to negotiate individual deals.
  • The NCI and Department of Energy will coordinate supercomputers at the Argonne, Los Alamos, Lawrence Livermore and Oak Ridge National Laboratories, and with IBM, to process data on cancer surveillance, lab experiments, genetic mutations and other information to help in understanding how and when cancer develops and how well treatments might work.
  • They’ll also work together with the Department of Veterans Affairs on a pilot project to study 8,000 lung cancer patients to see how their genes and genetic activity affects their response to cancer treatments — and they’ll share what they find.

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  • The National Institutes of Health has signed up 12 biopharmaceutical companies, a batch of research foundations, philanthropies and the Foundation for the NIH to develop the Partnership for Accelerating Cancer Therapies (PACT). The goal is to pay for early stage cancer research and freely share the results.
  • The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services is enrolling 3,200 oncologists in a new way of paying for better quality cancer care called the Oncology Care Model, focused on making the patient better rather than paying for individual treatments.
  • The Breast Cancer Research Foundation said it will double its annual cancer research investment from $50 million to $100 million by 2021.
  • The American Cancer Society said it would double its annual funding for research to $240 million by 2021.