The Washington Post

A bold initiative, in the face of doubts


In his State of the Union address, President Obama called 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 a never-changing battle.

“A single approach to cancer . . . ain’t going to happen,” said Jose Basel ga, president of the American Associatio­n for Cancer Research and chief medical officer at Memorial S loan 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 cancers, said Richard L. Schilsky, chief medical officer for the American Society of Clinical Oncology. “The only waywe will learn everything thatwe continue to have to learn will [be by] aggregatin­g large data sets,” he said.

Several organizati­ons have launched smaller databases. Cancer experts who met with Biden’s staff last week to suggest initiative­s want the government to create or fund a bigger one.

And this week, major pharmaceut­ical, biotech and insurance companies announced a collaborat­ion to accelerate the next generation of immunother­apy — which unleashes the body’s 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, its budget was increased by $260.5 million, to $5.21 billion, for fiscal 2016. About 70 percent goes for research.

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