Cancer Research Breakthrough: 'Moonshot' Panel Recommendations Revealed

Patient Expert

Vice President Joe Biden’s National Cancer Moonshot Initiative took a big step forward this month, as a blue-ribbon panel’s 10 recommendations to advance cancer prevention, care, and research were approved by the National Cancer Advisory Board.

The panel, comprised of eminent doctors, researchers, and professors from around the country, spent five months developing their Blue Ribbon Panel Report, which will guide the mission and work of the National Cancer Institute going forward. Here are the report’s 10 key recommendations, explained in laymen’s terms.

1. Establish a network for direct patient involvement

Cancer patients will be invited to join a national network that will provide them with their cancer’s genetic profile, and let them register that profile. This will benefit patients by alerting them to clinical trials for which they might be eligible, and researchers, who’ll be able to track and assess treatment outcomes for cancers with similar genetic profiles. The panel notes that appropriate privacy safeguards will be in place.

2. Create a clinical trials network devoted exclusively to immunotherapy

Immunotherapy is a promising new treatment that may one day replace chemotherapy (and chemo’s devastating side effects). The ultimate outcome of immunotherapy may be a cancer vaccine. Establishing interconnected clinical trials devoted exclusively to immunotherapy research will increase the speed at which that research takes place.

3. Develop ways to overcome cancer’s resistance to therapy

The biggest challenge oncologists face is cancer’s ability to defend against various types of treatment. Researchers will focus on determining how cancer cells are able to figure out and counter proven treatments and how to prevent them from doing so.

4. Build a national cancer data ecosystem

While there’s a lot of electronic data out there around cancer, it’s scattered in often-proprietary repositories, or available only to select groups of doctors or researchers. The envisioned free national cancer data ecosystem will be available to all — patients, researchers, and doctors — thus removing current roadblocks to information access that slow research progress.

5. Intensify research on the major drivers of childhood cancers

All children’s cancers have something in common — fusion oncoproteins — that drive the development and proliferation of cancer cells. Understanding how these oncoproteins work will quicken the development of effective treatments for pediatric cancers.

6. Minimize cancer treatment’s debilitating side effects

Cancer treatment side effects can be devastating and can last a lifetime. The panel calls for the development of treatment guidelines that will successfully manage patient-reported side effects. These guidelines should lessen the incidence of the worst side effects, and thus keep patients from quitting treatment.

7. Expand use of proven cancer prevention and early detection strategies

Four types of proven prevention strategies — tobacco control, colorectal cancer screening, HPV vaccination, and the early identification of certain hereditary cancers — will be expanded nationally, especially to areas with medically underserved populations.

8. Mine past patient data to predict future patient outcomes

Why do two women with the same type, stage, and grade of breast cancer, given the same treatment, often experience very different outcomes? Biobanks nationwide currently store tumor samples from cancer patients. If researchers gain wide access to the information in these biobanks, they can compare outcomes based on a tumor’s genetic profile, and thus determine which patients will ultimately benefit from standard treatment, and which would be better served by participation in a clinical trial.

9. Develop a 3-D cancer atlas

The panel recommends establishment of three-dimensional, highly detailed maps of various types of cancer tumors, created at different stages of their growth and during treatment. This will enable researchers to study how cancer grows, and determine what affects that growth, be it interactions with healthy surrounding cells or immune cells, chemotherapy and radiation, or simply the “microclimate” of the body itself. With this knowledge, oncologists can begin to understand which treatments will work best for any particular patient, as well as identify when certain treatments aren’t necessary.

10. Develop new cancer technologies

Extra energy and funding will be focused on the technological side of cancer treatment and research, via incentives to biomedical manufacturers and researchers. Examples of technology the panel recommends pursuing include improved imaging tools that allow researchers to examine cancer cells in detail; and “microdosing” devices that deliver an assortment of drugs to different parts of a tumor in order to assess ahead of time which chemotherapy drug might work best.

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Breast cancer survivor and award-winning author PJ Hamel_, a long-time contributor to the HealthCentral community, counsels women with breast cancer through the volunteer program at her local hospital. She founded and manages a large and active online survivor support network. _