By EMILY SAADI (NHS ‘19)

Though medical advancements have improved oncology therapies and technologies within the past two decades, cancer still remains one of the most prevalent killers in the United States.  In light of burgeoning medical discoveries, the US population will likely experience an increased life expectancy.  However, improved longevity does not guarantee optimal health outcomes,  as the development of preventative medicines in other disease areas  is resulting in a larger and older population with a greater risk of cancer.  Since cancer is now a major public health crisis, researchers are developing targeted medicines that aim to convert once incurable diseases such as breast, lung, prostate and skin cancers into chronic ones—or, if the science and time permits, into curable illnesses. The five-year survival rate for all cancer patients in now 68% in adults and 81% in children.

One of the proponents of  this initiative is  Vice President Joe Biden, who declared his “moonshot” to cure cancer in October of 2015.  Biden, who lost his son to brain cancer in May of 2015, has been an ardent advocate of the fight against cancer since his son’s diagnosis. Now in his last term of office, he has boldly promised to cut the timeframe of  various oncology drug developments in half. .  The project that he supports aims to focus on cancer immunotherapies, early detection, early interception, cancer vaccines, and other subcategories of oncology research.

However, Biden’s moonshot effort will require a monumental amount of funding.  The White House is currently seeking $1 billion in funding for his project.    Apart from the budget request, the government is also taking other steps to expedite the process of medical innovation in oncology.  For example, the Federal Drug and Food Administration (FDA)  has been authorized to approve cancer medicines based on scientifically promising data rather than comprehensive clinical trials.  A prospective cancer treatment can now reach the healthcare market more swiftly and become accessible to cancer patients within a reasonable  timeframe. , Moreover, the government aims to encourage rapid clinical trial enrollment so that more cancer victims can receive promising therapies  more quickly.  As  cancer treatments  become available on the  market, drug companies will need to receive rapid and value-based reimbursement for their discoveries in order to compensate for previous research and development (R&D) costs and to fund future innovations. Such a scenario will be within reach if Biden’s project receives the monetary and societal support that it requires.

Even if Biden’s moonshot budget request passes through Congress, however, market and political factors could derail his initiative.  Biden has encouraged all stakeholders within the healthcare industry to work together in developing different cancer treatments. Nevertheless, many innovators may not be willing to share important data associated with lifelong research, particularly within the context of a capitalistic drug development system.  Moreover, manufacturers may be more inclined to develop drugs for prevalent as opposed to rarer cancers in order to fulfill the financial expectations of their investors or stockholders, even though the science needed to address less common forms of cancer may be available. Unless a different reward system is established, current oncology drug pricing could make chronic treatment financially prohibitive for the one in two American males and one in three American females who will be diagnosed with cancer in their lifetimes.

Ultimately, the achievement of Biden’s goal to eliminate cancer will require both  federal efforts and the compliance of the private sector. Whether the interplay between the government and innovators will be constructive towards drug development depends on their ability to find a common goal. The fight against cancer is one that requires small, progressive steps towards ubiquitous treatment.

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