K-State cancer research shares goal with Biden’s ‘moonshot’ initiative

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(Courtesy of Johnson Cancer Research Center)

A renewed push by the Obama administration to develop vaccines for many specific forms of cancer is bringing private sector researchers and federal facilitation and investing together. In the same vein of President John F. Kennedy’s mission to fly to the moon, President Barack Obama, during his final State of the Union address in January, called on Vice President Joe Biden to lead the National Cancer Moonshot initiative.

The K-State Johnson Cancer Research Center’s research is conducted by faculty and student researchers in nearly 100 laboratories in 17 departments, according to the “Research” page of the center’s website. Marcia Locke, communications and outreach coordinator at the center, said she was excited to hear about the initiative.

The Cancer Moonshot initiative is not directly affiliated with the endeavors at the center, but locally-based research is making notable advancements, Locke said.

“You don’t get to cures and treatments without basic research,” Locke said. “When there isn’t enough funding for it, then (the scientists and researchers) spend so much time competing, and some of them actually end up getting out of the game or they move on to some other project.”

The federal initiative’s funding of $195 million for this year backs new cancer activities through the National Institutes of Health during the 2016 fiscal year. Next year, $755 million will be available to the NIH and the Food and Drug Administration for cancer-related research activities, according to the “Fact Sheet: Investing in the National Cancer Moonshot” page of the White House’s website.

Obama likely chose Biden to lead the initiative due in part to the personal impact the disease has had on the vice president’s life, Sarah Wheaton and Sarah Karlin said in the Politico article “Biden launches moon shot for a cancer cure.” Biden’s son, Beau Biden, died from brain cancer in May 2015.

The initiative established the National Immunotherapy Coalition, connecting many pharmaceutical firms and biotech companies in the cancer industry, according to the coalition’s Cancer MoonShot 2020’s website. Such companies are funding research and development of immunotherapies, a form of cancer treatment that uses immune cells to fight the unique cancers of different patients.

Robin Denell, university distinguished professor of biology and director at the center, said he was was welcoming of the initiative.

Denell, however, said labeling the initiative as a “moonshot” may not have been the best analogy for the venture.

“It implies that there’s going to be one big single event, and in fact, with all the different kinds of cancers that have to be looked at, even Biden is saying that (the Obama administration) shouldn’t have called it that,” Denell said.

The National Cancer Institute’s annual budget is approximately $5 billion, according to the “NCI’s role in cancer research” page on the center’s website.

“That $5 billion that goes to the National Cancer Institute is not very big compared to what’s spent by … pharmaceutical companies,” Denell said. “So (Biden) recognizes that that $5 billion spent on cancer research isn’t going to make a huge impact.”

While the initiative does not directly create funding or provide new equipment for K-State’s cancer-fighting efforts, the initiative may create both a new surge of confidence and the opportunity for more funding for K-State’s cancer researchers from outside sources and patrons, according to both Locke and Denell.

Ryan Rafferty, assistant professor in chemistry, won an Innovative Research Award last semester, which Rafferty said granted him funding to begin research on the harmful and sometimes fatal side effects of anticancer agents.

“This project is designed to see if we can modify and exemplify one molecule and make it the most potent anticancer agent that we can,” Rafferty said.

Stefan Bossmann, professor of chemistry, and Deryl Troyer, professor of anatomy and physiology, have created an early diagnostic test using nanotechnology that can detect with 95 percent accuracy many of the most common forms of cancer from a simple urine or blood sample. Now being piloted in China, these kinds of tests will soon allow doctors to monitor patients for recurrences of cancer and may eventually become part of wellness exams in the future, Bossmann said.

Bossmann said he has been working on the early diagnostic and immunotherapy components of cancer research for the past ten years.

“It is nice that the (Obama) administration has come to the conclusion that the old ways of doing this, giving money to only genetic studies, are not getting us ahead in treating cancer,” Bossmann said. “I’m not saying that gene therapy and gene measurements are useless, I’m just saying that they are only one component in the fight against cancer, and we need the other two components in order to be successful.”

Rafferty said he believes that if the scientific community can help even one person, it is a success.

“It doesn’t matter what it costs or how long it takes,” Rafferty said. “Improving the life of just one person is what my dream is. If we can do it for thousands or tens of thousands, that’s wonderful.”

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