Cancer cell made in 3D software. (iStock)

The Obama administration’s cancer “moonshot” initiative took another step forward Monday, as a blue-ribbon panel of leading cancer experts and patient advocates was named to recommend how best to tackle some of the most promising but challenging areas in research today.    

The 28 members of the committee represent a who’s who of the cancer world and are experts in a wide range of subjects, including immunology, genomics, biology, diagnostics, bioinformatics, and prevention and treatment. The panel will serve as a working group of the National Cancer Advisory Board, which advises the National Cancer Institute.  

The blue-ribbon committee’s recommendations are expected in August. They will be used by the advisory board to make suggestions to the inter-agency cancer moonshot task force being led by Vice President Biden’s office.

In a statement Monday, Biden said the blue-ribbon group will ensure that, as the administration allocates new resources for the cancer effort, “decisions will be grounded in the best science.”

The new committee has three chairs: Tyler Jacks, a cancer biologist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who also chairs the NCAB; Elizabeth Jaffee, an expert in immunology at Johns Hopkins University; and Dinah Singer, an acting deputy director of the cancer institute.

Ellen Sigal, founder of Friends of Cancer Research, which for years has advocated for more cancer-research funding, was appointed to the group, as was Patrick Soon-Shiong, a billionaire entrepreneur who has met with Biden. Other members include Jeff Bluestone, executive vice chancellor and provost at the University of California at San Francisco, and Mikael Dolsten, president of Pfizer Worldwide Research and Development.

In an article published Monday in the New England Journal of Medicine, Douglas Lowy, the acting director of the NCI, and Francis Collins, the head of the National Institutes of Health, spelled out some of the ideas that might be pursued as part of the moonshot initiative. They include the development of cancer vaccines; earlier, more sensitive detection approaches for cancer; the advancement of immunotherapy and combination therapies; genomic profiling of single cancer cells; increased data-sharing among researchers; and new approaches to pediatric cancers.

For cancer vaccines, for example, they said one possibility was to produce a vaccine for the Epstein-Barr virus, which is associated with various cancers, including lymphoma and stomach cancer. And they said it was important to better understand how immunotherapy works so that it can be used for all kinds of cancer.

“Strategies for spurring the immune system to attack cancer cells have begun to achieve dramatic successes,” Lowy and Collins said in the article. But “many solid tumors fail to respond well to these approaches, and initially positive responses are not always sustained,” they said.

President Obama proposed the cancer moonshot as part of his State of the Union address in January, and named Biden to head the effort.

NCI’s Lowy said in a recent interview that the cancer institute was interested in “a lot of input” on research priorities for the moonshot and would set up several ad hoc working groups so that an additional 75 people could take part in the process. The cancer institute also plans to provide a way for anyone who is interested in the initiative to post comments about the discussions of the blue-ribbon panel.

 

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