Q&A: Cancer Moonshot

Chief of staff Danielle Carnival, Ph.D., on tomorrow’s goals for today’s cancer

In President Obama’s 2016 State of the Union address, he announced a bold initiative: Cancer Moonshot.

Referring to any ambitious, groundbreaking, or exploratory project that often involves advances in technology, the very first ‘moonshot’ began in 1961, when President Kennedy challenged NASA to put a man on the moon. That moonshot was literal; they were aiming to visit the moon. In more recent years, the term has been used to refer to anything that might result in a huge breakthrough.

Led by Vice President Joe Biden, whose son Beau died of brain cancer in 2015, this moonshot seeks to do just that: “end cancer as we know it.”

Cancer is all too common: By this year’s close, over 1.6 million new cases will be diagnosed in the U.S.

Cancer Moonshot will focus on advancements in prevention, diagnosis, treatment, and research. It aims “to do in five years what might otherwise take a decade”; while also working to make cutting-edge treatments more widely available.

Recently, Furthermore spoke with Danielle Carnival, Ph.D., Cancer Moonshot’s chief of staff, about their groundbreaking undertakings.

What are Cancer Moonshot’s goals?

To make some cancers chronic, manageable diseases; extend and improve the life of those diagnosed; or prevent cancer altogether. What we’re hoping to do is catalyze or double the rate of progress in the short term, so that in the long term, we really see huge benefits for patients.

Why is Moonshot focusing some efforts on immunotherapy?

It’s an approach that is working very well in some cancers: the concept of using a patient’s own immune system to attack cancer cells. Cancer is tricky, in that it becomes a foreign body that takes over. Your body should recognize cancer cells as flawed or ‘other’ and attack the cells like it would a flu virus, but it doesn’t. With immunotherapy, you can direct cells within the immune system to identify aspects of cancer cells, attack, and kill them.

What about combination therapy?

This has increasingly been seen as the direction where treating cancer will go. It involves using two or three treatments, including targeted therapy (aimed at specific genes or proteins that are present in only certain cancers) or chemotherapy to simultaneously attack cancer from several angles. This makes cancer cells much more vulnerable to treatment. If we have combinations of two or three different ways of getting at the cancer, that may help keep it at bay, really putting a person in remission for the rest of their life.

What does “ending cancer as we know it” mean?

It means that even if you get to the point of diagnosis, there will be options for you that we don’t have today. The goal from the beginning of this initiative was to put us on a new course — and the work that we’ve done has started to put us on that trajectory.

This interview has been condensed and edited.

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