Missed opportunities for White House's 'moonshot' cancer initiative
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The concept and intention of the Obama administration's "moonshot" cancer initiative is praiseworthy, but much of its execution from day one has been fraught with missteps.


Last week at the American Association for Cancer Research's (AACR) annual meeting of cancer scientists in New Orleans, Vice President Joe BidenJoe BidenZuckerberg launches public defense of Facebook as attacks mount Graham: 'Stupid' for Trump to ask China to investigate Biden Romney: Republicans don't criticize Trump because they fear it will help Warren MORE had the opportunity to address the nearly 19,500 attendees at the opening plenary session. It would have been a great moment to speak directly to so many of the researchers who will be responsible for contributing to new meaningful cancer discoveries and treatments.

But instead, he chose — or his schedulers did — to speak at the very end of the meeting, after some 15,000 attendees had already left.

I was among them and changing my return flight plans at the last minute would have been both expensive and inconvenient.

I found this to be so with many of the people I spoke with at the meeting, who also expressed surprise at the timing. And I also learned that at least one member of the blue-ribbon panel selected to advise the vice president had left a day earlier.

During the meeting, the then-current president of AACR moderated a session dealing with moonshot, "Maximizing Cancer Cures: How Do We Get There?" The panel of experts included the acting director of the National Cancer Institute, Douglas Lowy.

When the audience was asked how many thought that moonshot was misnamed, about two-thirds of them agreed by a show of hands — including Lowy.

Many of the problems with the moonshot initiative began with how it was mis-launched in January at the president's State of the Union address.

The moonshot analogy was dated and fell short of the complexity of what needs to be done, not necessarily to "cure" cancer, but to understand it better and make it a chronic, more manageable condition.

Obama's opportunistic announcement of a new national effort seemed to take Biden — who was put in charge of mission control — by surprise.

The statement "let's make America the country that cures cancer once and for all," was both nationalistic and antithetical to the prevailing notion that cancer is a global challenge requiring the best and the brightest from around the world to work together.

Indeed, during the AACR session, one panelist — an esteemed cancer researcher from the U.K. — sarcastically wondered if he and others beyond the shores of America would be able to participate in the effort.

And the effort would have been more sustainable if it had bipartisan support at the outset, especially since the importance of cancer research is not limited to only one side of the aisle.

Perhaps the president might have said that, based on the considerable gains in cancer research and treatment over the past half century, the United States will now continue to lead the acceleration of cancer research, and that the vice president, a capable and compassionate man who certainly understands what cancer can cost personally, will be in charge of orchestrating a realistic plan that can make further inroads in dealing with the more than 200 diseases known as cancer.

Then the moonshot initiative — or whatever name might be more applicable — could have had the credibility, structure, support and accountability to make more meaningful strides to deal with the disease that has had many casualties, but 15 million Americans have survived, as well.

Rosenthal is an independent journalist who covers issues, controversies and trends in oncology as special correspondent for MedPage Today. He is the founder of the National Cancer Institute-Designated Cancer Centers Public Affairs Network, and helped organize a number of national medicine-and-the-media conferences. The opinions expressed belong solely to the author.