On Sept. 12, 1962, President Kennedy delivered his famous “We choose to go to the moon” speech to launch the U.S. lunar space program. This was a bold challenge to a nation whose record in space exploration, until that point, had been marked with very public failures against the Soviet Union’s success. Undaunted, the nation’s best and brightest answered the call, and in just seven short years enabled astronaut Neil Armstrong to take “one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind” on the moon.
In honor of the 50th anniversary of Kennedy’s speech, we propose the revival of another great challenge: to conquer cancer as we know it. Cancer in its many forms exacts an extremely high economic burden and personal cost. According to the National Cancer Institute, the cost of care for cancer is $124 billion annually in the United States. The institute also estimates that cancer affects nearly 12 million Americans, with more than half a million lives lost to cancer every year. That translates to an astounding 1,500 who die of cancer each day. Today, we propose that it’s time for America to declare our intention to reinvigorate the war on cancer. Here’s why:
Technology: The opportunity has never been more tangible, thanks to advances in DNA sequencing technology that will transform the entire health care industry, starting with the treatment of cancer. That’s because every tumor has a unique set of mutations that informs what specific therapy to apply. In the future, doctors won’t focus on whether the cancer started in the lung or the colon but rather will determine treatment according to what DNA mutations are discovered in the tumor.
Regulatory reform: Renewing our commitment to finding cures for cancer will provide compelling impetus to address fundamental reform of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Given that biotechnology will be to the 21st century what information technology was to the last century, we must achieve better and more efficient ways of evaluating drugs for safety and efficacy. In its mission to protect the public from harmful medicines, the FDA is often unable to consider the harm of denying patients the benefits of innovative new therapies. FDA reform that gives patients a voice in decision-making would achieve a better risk-reward balance.
The recent bipartisan passage of the FDA Reform Act, which includes expedited review of breakthrough drugs for patients with serious or life-threatening diseases, was a step in the right direction. Continued bipartisan initiatives focused on FDA reform also may provide an economic boost. Regulatory reform would stimulate economic development by retaining in this country some of the $30 billion in biopharmaceutical research-and-development investment sent overseas to avoid the FDA.
Tax reform: Few people realize the impact taxes have on investment. We must reform our tax code to encourage investment by the high-tech and life-science industry in research. Along with critically important National Institutes of Health funding, private-sector investment will drive research integral to finding a cure.
What we need from our political leaders is to recognize the opportunity and inject a sense of urgency in this fight. We can use health-information campaigns of the past as our guide. In a short amount of time, the combination of overwhelming political pressure, government-sponsored research and FDA cooperation can quickly turn what was a death sentence into a manageable illness.
It can be argued that we are in a better position to issue this challenge and succeed than Kennedy was in his race to space. Today, our understanding of cancer and its causes is relatively advanced and growing exponentially, whereas the technology to get us to the moon had yet to be conceived when Kennedy delivered his speech. For example, in 1980, there were only about 10 new cancer drugs in clinical development worldwide, whereas today nearly 1,700 experimental medicines are undergoing evaluation.
At a time when Washington finds it difficult to act on bipartisan legislation, the fight against cancer gives us something we can agree to collaborate on rather than fight over. Now is the time for President Obama to work with the speaker of the House and the Senate majority leader and take bold action to combat the cancer challenge.
While going to the moon stands out as one of mankind’s great accomplishments, saving mankind from the scourge of disease would be even greater.
Rep. Brian P. Bilbray, California Republican, serves on the House Energy and Commerce Committee and is co-chairman of the House Biomedical Caucus. Dr. John C. Reed is CEO, professor and executive chairman at Sanford-Burnham Medical Research Institute, and editor-in-chief of the American Association for Cancer Research’s Molecular Cancer Therapeutics journal.