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The Best—and Worst—Things About Joe Biden’s Cancer Moonshot

The government’s latest plans to beat cancer range from inspiring to highly questionable.
October 17, 2016

Vice President Joe Biden’s Cancer Moonshot is supposed to double the pace of progress in preventing, diagnosing, and treating cancer. Some of it is inspired; other parts are less exceptional or unlikely to succeed.

We’ve known for a little while the basic tenets of Biden’s plan: an aggressive push for sequencing tumor DNA, widespread sharing of data, and leveraging the two to provide precision treatments for patients. But on Monday Biden delivered a full report to explain how it will all work in practice. Its five core goals—from encouraging new scientific breakthroughs to improving patient access and care—are far-reaching but often vague.

So we’ve taken a closer look, and found are some promising ideas—as well as a few that should be viewed with skepticism.

A new Blood Profiling Atlas Pilot is an inspiring attempt to create the first large and open database of results from so-called liquid biopsies—a blood test that’s used to identify cancer DNA from just a few drops of blood. Data will initially come from 13 different ongoing studies, and the whole thing will be curated by University of Chicago and Seven Bridges. It’s hoped that by amassing enough data, simple blood tests could be used to identify nascent cancers (the technique has already been used successfully to help determine if tumors are likely to return).

Joe Biden and Barack Obama discuss the Cancer Moonshot Report.

Elsewhere, NASA has announced that it will work with the National Cancer Institute to investigate the biological effects of particle beam radiotherapy—a new, better-targeted version of conventional radiotherapy. Proton therapy has already begun to prove popular in the U.S. and has recently been heavily adopted in China, though studies into its efficacy and side effects are limited. The space agency will assess for which cancers the costly facilities required for the treatment are justifiable.

Uber and Lyft have also announced that they’ll expand current trials providing affordable transportation for cancer patients (currently a quarter of patients miss or reschedule their appointments due to transportation troubles). Lyft will expand its Boston trial to every city it currently operates in by 2020, and Uber will invest $5 million to improve its health-care-related and non-emergency medical transportation. This, of course, will all become more interesting when taxis go autonomous—even if that is a little ways off.

Some goals deserve a little more skepticism than the report suggests. In particular, the ambition to “expand the implementation of mobile devices and wearable technologies for cancer diagnosis” could be accused of overreaching. While certainly on-trend as a theme, many current wearables aren’t yet reliable enough for health-care applications.

That may change at some point: Alphabet’s health-care spin-off Verily is developing a device which is reported to measure cardiac activity, amongst other things. But for now the ambition to “detect microscopic cellular changes” and map tissue oxygenation seems overly optimistic.

Still, at least it is ambitious—a fine quality for something branded as a moonshot.

(Read more: Report of the Cancer Moonshot Task Force, “The Long Road to Obama’s Cancer Moonshot,” “The Rocket Fuel for Biden’s 'Cancer Moonshot'? Big Data,” “I Saw Alphabet’s Health Watch,” “Liquid Biopsy”)

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