Higher education

Iowa taking 'moonshot' at ending cancer

University of Iowa serving as satellite location for national summit

The University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics Holden Comprehensive Cancer Center is located within the John Pappajohn Pav
The University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics Holden Comprehensive Cancer Center is located within the John Pappajohn Pavilion on the University of Iowa campus in Iowa City. (Nikole Hanna/The Gazette)
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IOWA CITY — Cancer researchers across the country are on the brink of groundbreaking discoveries and lifesaving treatments, but various hurdles, red tape, and inefficiencies are slowing them down.

Eliminating those obstacles and identifying avenues for collaboration are among topics scientists, doctors, philanthropists, politicians, patients, and survivors will discuss Wednesday during a “Cancer Moonshot Summit” in Washington, D.C. and at satellite locations — including the University of Iowa.

The UI’s Holden Comprehensive Cancer Center was among 10 initially invited to host a satellite summit, although a groundswell of interest in the initiative multiplied that number to include dozens more cancer center, business, and even individual hosts.

The ultimate goal of the “National Cancer Moonshot Initiative,” led by Vice President Joe Biden, is to “double the rate of progress toward a cure” by making a decade worth of advances in five years. President Barack Obama unveiled the initiative during his final State of the Union address, and the White House since has announced a moonshot task force, a blue-ribbon panel, and avenues for broad public participation, including Wednesday’s summit.

George Weiner, director of the UI cancer center and president of the Association of American Cancer Institutes, is in Washington, D.C. with hundreds of experts in the field for the national full-day summit at Howard University.

It will be the first time stakeholders representing all types of cancers will convene under a single national charge.

Back on the UI campus, 100 to 200 doctors, nurses, researchers, patients, and community leaders are expected to participate in some capacity in a nearly three-hour summit, from 7:30 to 10:15 a.m. Ten panelists will lead the discussion, which will be livestreamed via Facebook, including Gary Streit, American Cancer Society volunteer and past chair for the National Board of Directors for American Cancer Society; Mohammed Milhem, deputy director for clinical cancer services with the UI cancer center; and Mary Charlton, with the UI College of Public Health Department of Epidemiology and co-investigator with the statewide Iowa Cancer Registry.

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The agenda includes livestreamed comments from Biden, a video presentation, a roundtable discussion, and questions and comments. Feedback from every summit will go to Biden and his moonshot team as they develop a plan to double the rate of progress in cancer prevention, diagnosis, treatment, and care over the next five years.

The eventual goal is to “end cancer as we know it,” according to UI officials.

Biden, who lost his son to brain cancer last year, said in statement earlier this year that he’s calling the initiative “moonshot” in reference to President John F. Kennedy’s call to land on the moon.

In that statement, Biden said every federal agency that can play a role will — ensuring this country makes the most of investments, research and data, supercomputing capabilities, targeted incentives, private-sector efforts, and patient-engagement initiatives.

“As the federal government, our job is to break down silos and bring people together who are doing the most cutting-edge work,” he said. “Our job is to clear out the bureaucratic hurdles and let science happen.”

Weiner said those “hurdles” will be his focus during the summit.

“There is red tape we have to deal with that slows us down and takes a lot of effort,” he said. “I would like to figure out how to cut through that.”

He said information systems used in clinical trials “are nowhere near as sophisticated as they could be,” and research dollars fall short of all the research progress and opportunities.

“Progress over the past 20 years has led to breakthroughs we are poised to take to patients,” he said. “So we want to use the funding we have as efficiently as possible.”

Some of those treatment breakthroughs include personalized medicine — the realization that every cancer is different and can be treated uniquely and much more effectively. Scientists also are looking at ways to tap patient immune systems in treating cancer.

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“We have figured out some of the ways that cancers hide from the immune system, and we are able to strip away the invisibility cloak so the immune system can see the cancer,” he said. “It’s exciting, and we are just learning how to use it.”

But some of those treatments require medication combinations, which can be hard to do when working with pharmaceutical companies. And enrolling patients in clinical trials requires extensive consent and “hoops.”

Weiner said he’s heard politicians before present well-meaning declarations and initiatives aimed at finding a cancer cure that turned out to be “a flash in the pan.”

“This one feels very different,” he said. “The vice president, like many of us, has been personally touched by cancer. He wants this to be his legacy.”

And, Weiner said, this initiative has something else going for it.

“The opportunity to make progress has never been greater,” he said.

IF YOU GO

What: Iowa Cancer Moonshot Summit

When: 7:30 a.m. to 10:15 a.m. Wednesday

Where: Medical Education Research Facility, room 1110A Prem Sahai Auditorium

Participate: Share cancer moonshot ideas on the Holden Comprehensive Cancer Center Facebook page or on Twitter using the hashtag #iacancermoonshot. Ideas will be shared as part of the roundtable discussion during the Iowa event.

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