My cancer research PI recently told us to pay close attention to vice president Biden’s speech at the annual American Association for Cancer Research meeting. Biden announced his moonshot initiative, the plan to stop cancer dead in its tracks. Many of the current problems with cancer research were outlined, and a proposal to provide the aid researchers need was made. The world has reached a new stage in the fight against cancer. Precision medicine has allowed scientists break walls they never could before. We can finally find genetic mutations in patients that allow better treatments options, but this is only the beginning. Biden wants to press the fast forward button on cancer research.
Funding plays an important role in research, and when the vice president tells you he is there for you—it really lifts some weight off your shoulders. Biden stated that he would like to increase the accessibility for funding, so that scientists can get started on the projects they have in mind as soon as possible. He also believes that many scientists are not being rewarded for thinking outside of the box, and that most projects which are funded, end up being studies that do not move forward in an innovative way. Biden believes that the key is to realign the incentives for cancer research. Funding however is not the only problem.
The problem is the scientific research infrastructure. Scientists pay money to conduct research, get results, then submit them to academic journal databases. The journals then decide whether the research is worthy enough to be published in their journal. There is also a waiting period which can span anywhere from 6 months to 3 years. The best part is once it is published, the journal pretty much owns your data. Anyone who wants to find your results will have to pay a hefty price to gain access to it. This creates a big dilemma, how can we expect to find a cure for cancer, when a single paper could take this long to make its way to the public. Scientist thrive on the opportunity to make connections using the overall movement of research. Biden believes the cure to this problem might to create database clouds, so that patient’s data is readily available for anyone conducting trials. Scientists all over the world sharing data.
“ In the US, the combined value of government, non-profit, and university-funded research in 2013 was over $158 billion—about a third of all the R&D in the US that year. Publishers acquire this research free of charge, and retain the copyrights, even though the public funded the work. Researchers aren’t paid by publishers for their research as it’s sold piece-by-piece or by subscription through academic journals. The reviewers who evaluate the research aren’t paid either. so we pay for it and then we have to pay again if we want to read it. There’s no way anyone can know what research and data can reveal unless we set it free.”
There are only a couple problems with the data cloud proposal. One is making sure the cloud is encrypted so that all patient data is safe from hackers, and the other is actually recruiting patients. Recruiting cancer patients is a tremendously difficult task. Most of the time patients will have only months of life left when diagnosed with stage 4 cancer. Imagine spending your last 6 months of life undergoing tests everyday. Another burden is the financial hardship associated with cancer. The trial that you may be eligible for could be thousands of miles away, away from home, family, etc.
We must also consider the stigma associated with undergoing any medical research trial. Patients don’t like feeling like lab rats, specially when they are down to the last couple months of life. Properly educating patients on the benefits of cancer research, and the prestigious role they play as patients undergoing treatment, need to be communicated to the general public. Providing incentives for patients, and increasing the amount of test centers is a crucial step.
Biden's moonshot proposal will raise a lot of awareness regarding the fight against cancer. He outlines his full support for cancer research, and this is just another step towards ending the fight against cancer. The only problem one can think of is the fact that Biden’s term as vice president is slowly coming to an end. It will be interesting to keep an eye on what Biden plans to do in the coming years.