Bringing innovation and accountability to America’s deadliest cancer
© Getty Images

Since the United States declared “The War on Cancer” in 1971, there has been no improvement in the pancreatic cancer mortality rate.

Ninety-one percent of pancreatic cancer patients die. Today and every day we will lose 117 people to this devastating disease. There are no early detection tests for pancreatic cancer, and no curative treatments. The clinical trial rate is abysmally low at 4 percent, because patients die too quickly to participate. There is no community of survivors because so few survive.

ADVERTISEMENT
My wife Suzanne was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in 2015. She was in the “Class of 2015” with 53,000 other patients, and like most of them, Suzanne lost her battle mere months after her diagnosis.

 

One of my very last promises to Suzanne was that I would not let the failure of the government and the medical community stand unchallenged. That I would not allow this disease to continue to be a silent killer. That I would do whatever it took to improve the odds for the next loved one to be handed this diagnosis. 

Through The Suzanne Wright Foundation, I am keeping this promise by launching CodePurple, the first national campaign to fight pancreatic cancer with the urgency this crisis deserves.

The federal government research model is broken. There is no urgency and no accountability. If any other business failed this spectacularly for four decades, it would be shut down.

“Code Purple” is a hospital alert for emergency reinforcements, and a steady 91 percent fatality rate over forty years is an emergency that demands reinforcements. The National Cancer Institute “is the nation’s leader in cancer research,” with an annual research budget of approximately $5.2 billion. Inexplicably, pancreatic cancer receives about 2 percent of these research dollars.

The NCI is setting the priorities for research around the world, and with a token 2 percent allocation for pancreatic cancer, the NCI signals the white flag of surrender on this disease. That’s not leadership.

This lack of funding is compounded by an institutional reliance on a program of small grants, spread across too many people, over too many years, with no demand for accountability or a demonstration of ROI. The NCI model is dated, low-risk, low-reward and out of step with breakthroughs and innovation in medical research and technology. There is nothing urgent about this system.

Medical advances have saved millions of lives. The mammogram became a recommended screening tool for breast cancer in 1976, the PSA Test was approved to detect prostate cancer in 1986, and the colonoscopy became the favored early detection test for colon cancer in 1990. These technologies have contributed to the drastic improvement in survival rates for these cancers. In all of this time, pancreatic cancer patients have been left behind.

This challenge demands a bold, new approach where we measure effectiveness by lives saved, and we report results. Investments by Google, IBMWatson, Microsoft and others offer more promise than ever in disease detection, diagnosis and treatment. These businesses apply their “Think Big” strategies, and state-of-the-art technology, to solve massive healthcare problems. This is the energy and expertise we need working on pancreatic cancer.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is the federal agency that works 24-7 responding to public health crises. It operates like an emergency room. This is the partner we need in the fight against pancreatic cancer. The CDC has a track record for fighting cancer in the United States. Its 2017 budget request allocates $302 million to The Division of Cancer Prevention and Control. The CDC Foundation provides a bridge between public and private innovators and aids the CDC in pursuing cutting-edge solutions to public health crises. 

Pancreatic cancer research funding should be transferred from the NCI to the CDC for a pilot program that includes a partnership with a major innovator, focusing on discovery of early detection tools and curative treatments. High-impact research needs large grants with clear deliverables. Dr. Thomas Price, Health and Human Services Secretary, has authority over both the NCI and CDC. Under the HHS Appropriations Act, he has the authority to transfer these funds, with congressional notification. Dr. Price has the opportunity to be the first person in government in over 40 years to treat pancreatic cancer like an emergency.

There is energy and focus following the passage of the 21st Century Cures Act. The Beau Biden Moonshot, which I support, provides for $755 million in new cancer funds for the National Institutes of Health and the Food and Drug Administration. The new Congress, working with the new Administration, should come together in a bipartisan fashion to authorize explicitly increased funding for pancreatic cancer research, and to establish the new emergency emphasis for the CDC to address this disease. Increased funding without accountability, however, will not yield the results we need. They have an opportunity to chart an ambitious, bold direction, and make life-saving progress.

Pancreatic cancer should not be a death sentence. With effective leadership, urgency and the level of priority it demands, we can save lives.

Bob Wright is the chairman of The Suzanne Wright Foundation; co-founder of Autism Speaks; and former vice chairman of GE; and former chairman of NBCUniversal.


The views expressed by contributors are their own and are not the views of The HIll.