President Obama's Cancer 'Moon Shot': How Scientists Are Trying to Cure the Disease

PHOTO: Joe Biden speaks during a climate summit event at the Eisenhower Executive Office Building in Washington, D.C., Oct. 19, 2015.PlayOlivier Douliery/Bloomberg via Getty Images
WATCH Vice President Joe Biden Reacts to State of the Union Address

For his last State of the Union address, President Obama announced the launch of a "moon shot" to cure cancer. While there are not many specifics on the ambitious proposal, Obama announced that Vice President Joe Biden will lead the initiative. Biden's son, former Delaware Attorney General Beau Biden, died at the age of 46 last year after a battle with brain cancer.

"Let’s make America the country that cures cancer once and for all," Obama said last night.

Biden wrote about his plans for the initiative on his verified Medium account, saying he wanted to "increase resources -- both private and public -- to fight cancer" and "break down silos and bring all the cancer fighters together" to share information and work together.

"Innovations in data and technology offer the promise to speed research advances and improve care delivery," Biden wrote. "But the science, data, and research results are trapped in silos, preventing faster progress and greater reach to patients. It’s not just about developing game-changing treatments -- it’s about delivering them to those who need them."

Biden pointed out that only 5 percent of cancer patients take part in clinical trials and that community oncologists, who treat 75 percent of cancer patients, do not have access to the latest technology.

Cancer experts today praised the president and the vice president and said the initiative could have a huge impact on the millions of Americans who have had or will have cancer.

Cancer research is in a critical stage as new breakthroughs in treatment and detection have given patients new hope, experts said. They explained to ABC News how cancer prevention, detection and treatment may change in the years to come.

PHOTO: Greta underwent experimental immunotherapy and received a bone marrow transplant from her older sister Charlotte to battle leukemia. These kinds of medications that harness the bodys immune system are expected to be the future of cancer treatmentsMaggie and Andy Oberhofer
Greta underwent experimental immunotherapy and received a bone marrow transplant from her older sister Charlotte to battle leukemia. These kinds of medications that harness the body's immune system are expected to be the future of cancer treatments


While scientists are constantly discovering new aspects of how cancers develop or return after treatment, experts say new prevention measures could put a huge dent in the number of expected cancer diagnoses.

Dr. Ron DePinho, president of the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center, said breakthroughs in understanding how cancer develops means that researchers now describe "50 percent" of cancers as a preventable.

"Curbing smoking, HPV [Human papillomavirus] vaccination, sun protection during childhood -- all those things in childhood are really important in preventing cancer," DePinho said. "It’s the greatest gift we can give to the next generation."

Dr. Otis Brawley, chief medical officer for the American Cancer Society, responded that more help is needed in encouraging and helping people to make decisions that lessen their cancer risk.

"Just as important as continuing to explore new science is a concerted effort to gather what we already know about cancer and find ways to apply these tools more effectively to save lives," Brawley said in a statement today. "If we applied what we already know about cancer prevention, early detection, and treatment, we could prevent a substantial proportion of the nearly 600,000 cancer deaths in the U.S. each year. These remarkable tools mean nothing if they sit unused, unavailable to those in need because of gaps in care caused by poverty and other factors."


In the future, finding cancer early may be as simple as getting blood drawn.

One key area of cancer research could be finding better detection tools, DePinho said, noting that doctors are looking for and finding key biomarkers that could indicate cancer. He theorized new research into detection technology could someday lead to a blood test that could be administered during a physical check-up and catch cancer in its early stages.

"It can allow us to analyze different [cancer] beacons that signal early-stage cancer," DePinho explained, noting that "a simple and inexpensive blood test" could be an early stage win at helping drop mortality rates related to cancer.

The difference in surviving a stage 1 cancer or a stage 4 cancer is "staggering," DePinho said.


One of the most exciting areas of cancer research is new therapies to treat cancers that were formerly death sentences. New cancer treatments that once seemed fantastical are now becoming reality. Recent clinical successes include immunotherapy treatments, where the immune system is "hacked" to fight the tumor, or medication designed to target a specific genetic pathway in a tumor.

In some studies of melanoma patients, doctors saw the "Lazarus" effect, where the patients came back from the brink of death thanks to specific new treatments aimed at reprogramming the body's t-cells to fight cancer, DePinho said.

"A first drug that has reawakened the immune system has generated a 23 percent cure rate," DePinho said, explaining that some people in these trials even had cancer that had spread to the brain. "They are alive with no evidence of disease."

Immunotherapy treatments can include taking out t-cells from the body and genetically engineering them so that they are primed to fight cancer in the body or using new technology to create cancer-targeting antibodies for patients.

Stan Gerson, director of the University Hospital Seidman Cancer Center and the National Cancer Institute designated Case Comprehensive Center, said these new breakthroughs have brought new hope to cancer experts, but that it would take sustained support and funding for the "cancer moon shot" to be successful.

"In that way it’s like going to the moon. It took a huge amount of technology to get that done," Gerson told ABC News. "I think we can all agree cancer is a much more difficult goal than going to the moon."

Gerson said he hopes the moon shot will help promote a streamlining and new trans-disciplinary approach to treating and detecting cancer by utilizing experts from different specialties. He expected future breakthroughs to happen when a host of experts come together -- from oncologists to genetic experts -- to look at cancer in different ways.

Additionally, one key part to improving patient care is streamlining bureaucracy so that patients can get easy access to new drugs or clinical trials, Gerson said.

"Right now I often fly a patient to another city to get access to the drug," Gerson explained. "We’ve got to develop the technology so the drug can fly here."

Access to data between hospitals and opening up clinical trials should all be parts of pushing the cancer battle forward, he said.

Dr. Jule Vose, president of the American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO), said in addition to major technological breakthroughs in treatments, the way data is shared could have a huge impact in helping patients across the country. ASCO is currently working on a system to encourage sharing data between researchers and oncologists, she said. A mass system could mean doctors are able to find patterns in detection and successful cancer treatment responses that might otherwise be impossible to find, Vose said.

"We want to have a very large data system to try and put thousands and thousands of patients' information together, anonymously," Vose told ABC News. "We want to see if there is a rare type of cancer ... what happens to patients with that specific type of drug."

Additionally, patients need easy access to treatment that already exists, she said.

"I was thinking about getting the treatment for the patient, they don’t have insurance coverage or unable to afford the co-pay," Vose said. "Many of the oral medications, they cost $10,000 or $12,000 a month. Even if they have good insurance, if it’s a 20 percent copay it’s really unaffordable."