Health & Family

The cure for cancer? The answer lies in cooperation, says expert

Don Graves, “cancer czar” chosen by Vice President Joseph Biden to coordinate the White House Cancer Moonshot initiative.
Don Graves, “cancer czar” chosen by Vice President Joseph Biden to coordinate the White House Cancer Moonshot initiative.

Forty-five years ago, former President Richard Nixon declared war on cancer. But despite progress in some areas, cancer remains a major cause of death.

Given that outcome, does a new “cancer moonshot” – announced by President Barack Obama during his State of the Union address in January – have any better chance of success?

Don Graves, the “cancer czar” chosen by Vice President Joseph Biden to oversee the initiative, believes so.

“We’re at a very different time,” Graves said Thursday during a visit to Charlotte. “We’re at a point we’ve never been at in the field of cancer research.”

In addition to traditional cancer treatments of surgery, chemotherapy and radiation – which can sometimes have damaging effects – doctors now are able to offer more-targeted and less-toxic immunotherapy for some cancers.

Technological advances in sequencing the human genome and the adoption of electronic medical records have also made it possible to analyze data and determine why some patients respond to certain therapies and others do not, he said.

“A ton of progress has been made,” said Graves, who was previously Biden’s director of domestic and economic policy and who led the Obama administration’s effort to help speed Detroit’s financial recovery.

While he’s a political coordinator, not a medical scientist, Graves does have experience with cancer. He said he’s in remission after being diagnosed with multiple myeloma in May 2015, about the same time that Biden’s son, former Delaware Attorney General Beau Biden, died of brain cancer.

Graves said his cancer was discovered when he had an MRI “for an entirely different issue.” As a result, it was caught early and treated successfully. “Fifty percent of all cancers are preventable,” he said. “Please, please, please. Go and get checked out on a regular basis.”

To ensure the moonshot is grounded in the best science, the Cancer Moonshot Task Force, chaired by Biden, has consulted with many experts. More than 20 cabinet and federal agencies have a role in cancer – even NASA because of its research on the effects of radiation on astronauts, Graves said.

One of the goals of the initiative is to “change the culture” of cancer-related institutions, to break down “silos” and encourage federal agencies, cancer researchers, drug companies, insurance companies, and advocates to collaborate and put aside self interest in favor of faster progress.

Another long-lasting outcome will be a “match-making system” for sharing information on the most successful cancer treatments and on the availability of clinical trials. “We want to make sure that every patient has the ability to know about all the available treatments out there,” Graves said.

The task force is also working with pharmaceutical companies on the problem of rising drug prices that are out of reach for some patients and diseases. “It is very expensive to develop a drug, particularly those for rare cancers,” Graves said. “…We have to allow them to make money (but not) gouge patients.”