America needs an Operation Warp Speed for cancer

cdc centers for disease control and prevention cancer rates declining mortality rates declining incidence rate rising

Operation Warp Speed changed the landscape of drug approvals forever. This was a federal effort to accelerate COVID-19 vaccine development created under President Trump last year. 

Because I work in clinical development and understand how regulators operate, I was initially skeptical about Operation Warp Speed. The ambitious goals, plans and speed in which these companies attempted to develop, manufacture and deliver novel vaccines seemed impossible. But their success proved the model. Operation Warp Speed demonstrated that collaboration, transparency and ample funding are game changers in creating scientific breakthroughs. 

Now, the same can happen for cancer treatment. And we’ve never had a president that is more committed to making cancer history than Joe Biden. 

Following his son Beau’s death from glioblastoma in 2015, Biden became the country’s top cancer advocate. In 2016, at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, he declared he wanted to “end cancer as we know it.” He devoted the final year of President Barack Obama’s presidency to the White House’s Cancer Moonshot program, which aimed to combat cancer by funding bold research. The program’s mission to speed up breakthroughs and expand the number of treatments available to patients made possible immunotherapy treatments, increased disease prevention strategies and allowed cancer to be detected earlier to millions of American patients. Biden often mentioned doubling the pace of progress toward a cancer cure, achieving what would otherwise take 10 years in five years. And as a presidential candidate, he declared, “I promise you if I’m elected president, you’re going to see the single most important thing that changes America: We’re gonna cure cancer.” 

Now he can help make that dream become a reality. Biden is probably the most science-driven and results-oriented president ever to hold office. With his party in power of the House and the Senate, Biden could put a lot more fuel in the rocket for cancer research. It’s time for his legacy to take the next step and launch a “cancer breakthrough operation” based on Operation Warp Speed’s learnings.  

We are on the brink of exponentially making cancer a disease of the past, and Biden has the opportunity to change the future of humanity by making cancer history. Here’s how he can do this:

1) Launch an Operation Warp Speed for cancer

In the race to combat COVID-19, regulators slashed old-age processes and revamped how regulatory agencies analyze drug approvals. Thus enabling pharmaceutical companies, the National Institutes of Health and the Food and Drug Administration to cooperate in unprecedented ways.

The government incentivized involvement in this vital public-private partnership by providing billions of dollars for vaccine research, manufacturing and distribution. It will be critical to use this regulatory model to end cancer, mainly because cancer treatments are much harder to find than a simple vaccine. Cancer is complex. It changes and tricks the body’s immune system. 

2) Fund more significant investments in research

In the United States, new cancer cases are diagnosed every 30 seconds. Each year, more than 1.2 million Americans are diagnosed with cancer, adding to the 20 million already fighting for their lives. The Trump administration’s Operation Warp Speed spent over $12.4 billion on vaccine research and development. This partnership between the Departments of Health and Human Services and Defense was successful because of funding.

Selecting drug candidates that use different mechanisms to stimulate clinical activity against cancer, using artificial intelligence models, machine learning, epigenetics and proteomics require massive funding. Drugmakers cannot do this independently, and academic institutions rely heavily on poorly compensated post-doctoral researchers and grants from philanthropies. Running pre-clinical studies, moving the findings into clinical trials, gathering data on safety and analyzing efficacy require much more than volunteer participants and goodwill.

New technologies have the potential to unlock breakthroughs but are costly, and large-scale studies are expensive. That’s why Biden should create a “cancer breakthrough operation” and dedicate $20 billion to accelerate the development of new cancer treatments. He can make a historic and seismic impact in ending cancer for good. 

3) Push Americans to get screened for cancer 

Because of the coronavirus, people stayed home, delaying their medical appointments and forgoing appropriate care. New cancer screening guidelines advise the public to screen for cancers earlier, but pandemic disruptions hindered the population from showing up to their doctor’s appointments for the past year.

Postponing medical treatment is not a good idea. The damage caused by last year’s viral outbreaks on medical research is immeasurable — clinical trials had their enrollment impaired, patients had surgeries and biopsies postponed, and unfortunately, many patients delayed treatment.

The National Cancer Institute estimated 1.8 million new cancer cases for 2020 and over 600,000 cancer deaths in the United States alone. Screening is testing people to find cancer cells before it becomes an uncontrollable problem. When cancer is diagnosed early, folks are often not experiencing symptoms, yet many are afraid to return to medical services because of the coronavirus. 

Finding some cancers at an early stage, before symptoms appear, may help decrease the chance of dying from those cancers. Cancers diagnosed at earlier stages are usually easier to treat, and, at times, a cure is possible. Substantial increases in the number of avoidable cancer deaths in America are to be expected as a result of diagnostic delays due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Urgent policy interventions are necessary, particularly to manage the backlog of routine diagnostic services. Americans need to feel safe returning to their medical care, get screened for cancer get treated. Biden can help with that.

Beyond my professional experience, cancer is personal to me: I lost my grandfather to Glioblastoma, an aggressive type of brain tumor. When I was 12, my six-year-old cousin fell ill with a rare childhood lymphoma. When I was a teen, my mother fought and survived uterine cancer. During the pandemic, I diagnosed my dad with a rare immune system cancer that we have no cure for yet. That’s why it’s so important to me, and why I dedicated my career to research better ways of treating this disease. 

There can hardly be a more noble mission than ending cancer, and Biden has a chance to spearhead this effort. Launching a new Operation Warp Speed for the development of breakthroughs for cancer patients could save millions of lives.

Dr. Leo Nissola is a medical doctor and immunotherapy scientist focused on fighting advanced-stage cancers with the immune system at The Parker Institute for Cancer Immunotherapy. Follow him on Twitter @LeoNissolaMD and @DoctorLeo on Instagram. 

Tags Barack Obama Cancer cancer treatment Clinical trials COVID-19 Donald Trump Joe Biden Leo Nissola operation warp speed

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