Biden Gives a Peek at What’s to Come for Cancer Moonshot

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Vice President Joe Biden speaks on June 14, 2016, in Washington.

Photographer: Alex Wong/Getty Images
  • IBM’s Watson to help personalize veterans’ cancer treatment
  • NCI to ease access to drugs for combined therapy studies

A corporate-government partnership to improve U.S. veterans’ access to personalized cancer treatments will highlight a nationwide series of gatherings and events Wednesday detailing of Vice President Joe Biden’s “Cancer Moonshot” program.

IBM Corp. will donate access to its “Watson” supercomputer -- best known for beating human champions on the television game show “Jeopardy!” -- to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. The supercomputer will help provide facilitate oncology treatment for those who have served in the U.S. military, according to a statement from the White House.

Biden’s program will kick into full gear with summits in Washington and around the country to promote coordination among drugmakers and government agencies. With just half a year left in President Barack Obama’s administration, it’s crucial to begin the projects, said Greg Simon, executive director of the Cancer Moonshot Task Force.

“Many things will take years to change,” he said on a phone call with reporters. “The important thing is that we start and we make it irreversible, so that we don’t fall back into business as usual.”

Shared Research

As part of the program, drugmakers have committed to share research to speed new oncology medications to market. Through the National Cancer Institute, as many as 30 companies will get fast access to drugs for study in combination with other medications, or for uses other than those for which they have approval. Currently, getting permission to do such studies can take as long as a year and a half, according to Biden’s office.

Some private foundations committed to double their investment in cancer research over the next five years, including the American Cancer Society, which currently spends about $100 million per year in grants for academic research institutions and as much as $20 million annually on its own research, according to the statement. Alex’s Lemonade Stand Foundation will put $150 million toward childhood cancer research, the White House said.

IBM’s “Watson” will help researches conduct genomic analyses on 10,000 veterans with cancer over the next two years. The hope is that Watson can help replace time-intensive work normally done by oncologists, allowing the VA to scale up its precision medicine program. About 3.5 percent of all American cancer patients are veterans eligible for treatment through the VA. The algorithm can use past data to help pinpoint likely cancer-causing mutations and identify treatments that target them.

Increased Access

David Shulkin, undersecretary of health for the Department of Veterans Affairs, said he was particularly excited that the program would eventually open access to precision oncology to veterans who did not live near the VA’s top cancer treatment facilities.

“This is really democratizing access to this expertise no matter where you live,” he said in a telephone interview.

Richard Pazdur, director of the FDA’s Office of Hematology and Oncology Products, will serve as acting director of the agency’s new Oncology Center of Excellence, which is designed to unite regulators’ expertise to review new cancer therapies. The American Cancer Society, the American Society of Clinical Oncology, and Friends of Cancer Research have pushed for the center’s creation.

“This is an attempt to augment and enhance the existing system,” Pazdur said on the call.

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