Why the "Moon Shot" to Cure Cancer Might Work
The Wall Street Journal
Dr. Atul Grover (@AtulGroverMD) is the chief public policy officer of the Association of American Medical College
Widespread praise for Vice President Joseph Biden’s “Moon Shot to Cure Cancer“ is another positive development in a year that could prove transformative for biomedical research – and the nation.
In December, biomedical research regained the broad, bipartisan Congressional support it enjoyed 13 years ago when both parties celebrated a five-year doubling of the annual budget of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) – the world’s largest medical research funding agency.
The years before had been tough ones. NIH’s inflation-adjusted budget declined by more than 20% between 2003 and 2014. NIH went from funding one in three approved extramural grant applications to one in six, despite extraordinary opportunities for discoveries unrealized, not to mention the impact of fewer grants on new scientists’ careers and the sustainability of research infrastructure overall. The U.S. reputation as world leader in innovation suffered; China now leads in global life science patent applications. Most importantly, untold lives are the worse for it.
The 114th Congress, which was elected in 2014, marked a turning point. It gave NIH a 6.6% increase of $2 billion – significant growth for the first time since 2003 – thanks to resurgent bipartisan support. Democratic and Republican representatives endorsed boosting NIH’s budget by $2 billion, and over 100 Republicans called for a $3 billion increase.
What made the difference was a bipartisan decision to raise the spending caps; recognition of exceptional research opportunities close at hand; passionate advocacy by patients and families, business leaders convinced of research’s economic impact, and internationalists believing scientific prowess enhances U.S. global leadership; and researchers who can translate the value of science into lay terms.
Vice President Biden can be described as an advocate, a father profoundly motivated by his oldest son’s death from cancer. But drawing on over 40 years of experience in politics, Mr. Biden is uniquely qualified to harness passion to pragmatism to achieve his goal.
I believe the applause for the moon shot is partly in appreciation for his understanding that more resources for research – particularly sustainable resources, which are essential – must go hand in hand with improved collaboration. Such collaboration has the potential to achieve the best possible return on investment. For example:
- MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston is constructing a facility designed for collaborative investigation on pancreatic cancer, bringing basic scientists, oncologists, surgeons, radiologists and pathologists under one roof for integrated, multidisciplinary research and patient care.
- A Seattle-based consortium brings together the cancer specialists of Fred Hutchinson Cancer Center, Seattle Children’s, and the University of Washington to accelerate cancer research, aligning over 400 research faculty in basic, clinical and public health sciences.
- Penn Medicine’s Abramson Cancer Center in Philadelphia is in talks with research institutions in two other states to explore forging partnerships that would remove bureaucratic silos in cancer research that can impede discovery.
The launch of the moon shot – in conjunction with long-term, sustainable NIH funding overall – would represent a potential game changer for cancer. They also could open a historic new chapter in medicine and health.