President Obama called Tuesday for a stepped-up war on cancer, but with hundreds, even thousands, of types of cancer and an ever-increasing number of specialized therapies for them, experts say there is no true “moonshot” approach to tackling the nation’s second-leading cause of death.
The intensified research effort, which Obama said would be led by Vice President Biden, may instead be more like a swarm of fighter jets scrambling to take on numerous adversaries in an ever-changing battle.
“A single approach to cancer...ain’t going to happen,” said Jose Baselga, president of the American Association for Cancer Research and chief medical officer at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York. “Cancer, we’ve learned, is far more complex than we’ve ever imagined. Every single tumor is different.”
Yet top cancer specialists agree on several big ideas that might push the boundaries of research and therapy for the 1.7 million people diagnosed each year. Chief among them is creation of a huge database of diagnostic and treatment information from all cancer patients that clinicians and researchers would use to study different disease types and respond with specially targeted drugs.
Genomic testing has revealed that lung cancer, for example, is actually at least half a dozen kinds of different cancers, said Richard L. Schilsky, chief medical officer for the American Society of Clinical Oncology.
“The only way we will learn everything that we continue to have to learn will [be by] aggregating large data sets,” he said.
Several organizations already have launched smaller data bases. Cancer experts who met with Biden’s staff last week to suggest initiatives want the government to create or fund a bigger one.
Those experts also called for insurance coverage, via Medicare and perhaps private insurers, of genomic testing of tumors, said Barrett J. Rollins, chief scientific officer at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston, who attended the meeting. Patients currently bear the cost of that often-critical testing.
And just this week, major pharmaceutical, biotech and insurance companies announced a collaboration to accelerate the next generation of immunotherapy — which unleashes the body’s own immune system to fight cancer.
Officials said that work must be underpinned by research at the National Cancer Institute. After years of flat or declining funding, the institute’s budget was increased by $260.5 million, to $5.21 billion, for fiscal 2016. About 70 percent of the money goes for research.
“It starts, to some degree, with robust, sustainable and annual funding increases,” said Jon Retzlaff, managing director for science policy and government affairs at the American Association for Cancer Research.