Shooting for the Moon: A New Cancer Immunotherapy Initiative

Posted by Niveen M. Mulholland, Ph.D on Aug 24, 2016 11:00:00 AM

CancerMoonShot2020.pngIn 1962, President John F. Kennedy electrified the nation when he declared our intent to send a man to the moon. This year, President Obama declared a new “shoot for the moon” endeavor: to find an effective immunotherapy treatment for cancer by the year 2020.

What Is Cancer MoonShot 2020?

Kennedy’s 1962 speech about landing a human on the moon is credited with galvanizing public support for this historic mission. By capturing the public imagination, the president was able to allocate significant funding for NASA to work collaboratively with other agencies on the Apollo missions. Cancer MoonShot 2020 intends to recapture that public spirit in an effort to combat cancer.

Cancer MoonShot 2020 was inspired by Vice President Joe Biden, who lost his son Beau to cancer in 2015. Beau Biden was one of 600,000 Americans who die of cancer each year. Not only does this represent a large public health burden, but cancer also personally affects nearly every person in the country. By allocating an unprecedented $1 billion to this initiative, the White House has signaled its commitment to fighting back against cancer.

The mission of Cancer MoonShot 2020 is to find new immunotherapies to win the war on cancer. Toward this end, the initiative will begin randomized Phase II trials within the next 36 months. These clinical trials will enroll 20,000 patients with 20 tumor types in all stages of the disease. The findings from the Phase II trials are intended to inform Phase III trials, allowing us to reach the goal of finding an effective immunotherapy treatment for cancer by 2020.

The MoonShot 2020 Strategy

The MoonShot 2020 has developed a master protocol known as the Quantitative Integrative Lifelong Trial (QUILT) program. This program is the result of collaborative work between cancer experts from numerous fields and work environments. The QUILT program is designed to orchestrate all levels of the human immune system to fight against cancer. This will include:

  • Investigating dendritic cell, T-cells, and natural killer cell therapies
  • Development of cancer vaccines
  • Use of cell-based immunotherapy
  • Testing novel combinations of immunotherapy with metronomic chemotherapy and low dose radiotherapy
  • Exploring the use of immunomodulators such as checkpoint inhibitors in conjunction with other cancer therapies
  • Testing these treatments in patients who have received whole genome, transcriptome, and quantitative proteomic analysis

The QUILT program essentially takes everything we know about fighting back against cancer and tests the elements in novel conjunctions to determine what is most effective. Furthermore, the addition of genomic and proteomic analyses allows scientists to identify which treatments are optimal for which patients.

Who Is Involved?

The level of collaboration involved in the Cancer MoonShot 2020 is simply unprecedented. Literally everyone affected by cancer -- from researchers to patients to families to health insurance providers -- is involved in this initiative.

Part of the initiative is the development of the National Immunotherapy Coalition, or NIC. This includes biotechnology companies, multinational pharmaceutical groups, academic medical centers, community oncologists, and other medical practitioners. In particular, the NIC includes individuals from Celgene, Amgen, NantWorks, NantKwest, Etubics, Altor Bioscience, Precision Biologics, Johns Hopkins University, Tufts University, Columbia University, Allscripts, and Blackberry. The network includes nearly 1,000 oncologists across the nation who will be involved in the clinical trials.

Even medical payers have gotten involved, with Independence Blue Cross and Bank of America (a self-insured employer) joining the coalition. These insurance companies are important to the effort, as they will ensure that there is coverage for proteomic testing and whole genome sequencing. Their support of the Cancer MoonShot 2020 initiative will be crucial in years to come as patients need medical insurance to support effective therapies in the fight against cancer.

The Bottom Line: What Does Cancer MoonShot 2020 Mean for Patients and Families?

The Cancer MoonShot 2020 initiative is absolutely unprecedented in its scope and mission. Unlike for President Nixon’s 1971 “War on Cancer”, this initiative comes at a time when cancer experts believe that our technological innovations have poised us to make a breakthrough. Additionally, the Cancer MoonShot 2020 project has an incredible commitment to collaboration across pharmaceutical and biotech companies, academic medicine, government, and the broader scientific community.

Even if the initiative does not reach its goal of developing an effective immunotherapy treatment for cancer by 2020, it will undoubtedly make substantial progress toward that goal. With a focus on genomics and proteomics, the initiative has the potential to transform the detection and prognosis for numerous forms of cancer.

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