The battle against cancer

A young cancer patient sits by a hospital window. (Photo: Sasa Prudkov)

It’s pretty rare nowadays to meet someone whose life hasn’t been affected by some variety of cancer. Whether you’ve been diagnosed yourself or know someone who has, the impacts can be devastating.

The National Cancer Institute estimated that nearly 1.7 million new cases would be diagnosed in the United States last year alone, and nearly 600,000 people would die from the disease. Those sobering statistics are only one of many reasons why President Barack Obama launched the National Cancer Moonshot last January, an initiative led by Vice President Joe Biden, whose son passed away from brain cancer, to find cures and treatments to eventually eliminate it.

President Obama’s Moonshot initiative has come at a good time and has shown a lot of promise in a variety of areas.

Mesothelioma is one cancer that could benefit greatly from the Moonshot’s work to eliminate cancer. This rare type of cancer only affects about 3,000 people annually, but it’s aggressive and usually offers patients a poor prognosis, facing an average of 15 months after their diagnosis. Mesothelioma is completely avoidable and is caused by exposure to asbestos, a known carcinogen. Used for decades, the material is found in everything from automotive brake pads and linings to duct adhesives and furnace products, it is the only known cause of the disease and is incredibly dangerous if inhaled or ingested.

The mineral has already been banned in at least 60 countries, including all 28 countries in the European Union, and although efforts have been made to ban asbestos in the U.S. it is still used and available today.

For many companies and organizations working in the rare cancer space, President Obama’s Moonshot initiative has come at a good time and has shown a lot of promise in a variety of areas. The Mesothelioma Cancer Alliance, for example, provides online resources for those who want to learn more about the disease, offers support for patients and caregivers and up-to-date treatment options, advancements and news.

One of the Moonshot’s primary focuses to begin this new era is to open pathways for new investments in medicine, emerging treatments and data sharing between researchers. This has mobilized a growing number of groups across the United States to focus more intensely on cancer treatments and cures.

Last June, as part of the Moonshot, the National Cancer Institute introduced the Genomic Data Commons, a nationwide database with the goal of housing the largest cancer genomics datasets in the world. The information will be open to any cancer researcher to use, and can be reanalyzed as the science behind it improves. One of the many additional benefits from opening up this information to researchers is reducing barriers and red tape that in the past have been known to slow down advancements and cooperative thought.

Another major program coming out of the movement is the Quantitative Integrative Lifelong Trial (QUILT) Program, with the goal of enrolling 20,000 patients into multiple combination therapy clinical trials by the year 2020. The program allows for testing combinations of immunotherapies like vaccines and other emerging treatment options alongside current forms of treatment to determine what works best. QUILT brings together a wide variety of pharmaceutical companies, biotech companies, cancer centers, healthcare providers and even self-insured companies to push forward with what has become a rapidly growing program.

Facilities in California, like those in other states, are taking notice and becoming actively involved in the Cancer Moonshot’s goals. Although the National Cancer Institute has reported that rates of lung and bronchus cancers in California fell from 2009-2013, continued advancements to treat and eventually cure those patients has shown some hope in Stage I trials in 2016.

Moonshot projects are also prompting California and its large network of hospitals and cancer centers to amp up its real-time cataloging of cancer diagnoses and initial treatments, with the goal of eventually reaching 100 percent real-time reporting.

According to STAT News, the state has collected data for more than 4.5 million patients since 1988. That information could be used to see what treatments are the most effective and eventually provide patients to clinical trials more quickly. The move bolsters the Moonshot’s eventual goal of improving cancer treatment outcomes for all cancers, including some of the most rare.

There’s still plenty of time to see how everything plays out, but the impact of these major partnerships between private and public organizations has the healthcare community dreaming of new heights. The Moonshot’s goal of finding cures for cancers by 2020 is lofty and ambitious, but the rapid advancements made so far are making a large push in the fight against cancer, and that’s something everyone should be proud of.

Ed’s Note: Jackie Clark handles community outreach for the Mesothelioma Cancer Alliance.

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