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Roswell Park doctor on cancer fight: ‘We move like snails’

If one theme dominated Wednesday’s regional cancer moonshot summit in Buffalo, it is urgency.

Progress in cancer must occur more quickly, speakers said at Roswell Park Cancer Institute.

“We need to be more impatient and attack cancer with a sense of urgency,” said Dr. Carl Morrison, executive director of Roswell Park’s Center for Personalized Medicine. “We move like snails.”

More than 200 regional cancer moonshot summits took place around the country like the one at Roswell Park. The event in Buffalo was one of only 10 coordinated through the federal Department of Health & Human Services.

It will likely be debated for years whether and how the Obama administration’s initiative can help science move with the speed that doctors, scientists, patients and government officials want. But an audience of hundreds at the cancer center greeted the idea with enthusiasm.

“This is an effort to energize the nation,” said Dr. Kunle Odunsi, Roswell Park’s deputy director.

Some of the key goals for the country highlighted by experts: improve collaboration, access to clinical trials, data-sharing and prevention efforts.

Despite progress against cancer, the disease remains the second-leading cause of death in the United States and a diagnosis that scares any patient.

The national effort to advance treatment – a cancer “moonshot” – lifted off Wednesday with gatherings of experts and supporters across the country.

Vice President Biden led a national conference at Howard University in Washington, D.C., that coincided with the regional summits.

“We’re at an exciting moment in the field with technology and our understanding of the disease – on the cusp of new insights and innovative approaches,” said Candace S. Johnson, president and CEO of Roswell Park Cancer Institute. Johnson attended the national conference at Howard University.

In his final State of the Union speech in January, President Obama set a goal of making America “the country that cures cancer once and for all.”

The president put Biden in charge of the initiative. A federal task force was formed to formulate a plan, and the White House called for almost $1 billion in additional funding – $195 million initially for the National Institutes of Health and $755 million in fiscal 2017 for the NIH and the Food and Drug Administration.

The national and regional summits represent the first major public aspect of the endeavor.

“We’re excited about the idea because it shines a light on the issues in front of us,” Johnson said.

Jill Biden, the vice president’s wife, was also scheduled to appear at the Howard University event. The Bidens’ son Beau died at 46 last year of brain cancer.

The task force’s job is to make recommendations before the end of the year. Its mission includes accelerating the understanding of cancer and its prevention, early detection, and treatment; improving access to services; supporting greater use of data and computational capabilities; identifying and addressing unnecessary regulatory barriers; and ensuring optimal investment of federal resources.

The government already spends a lot on cancer, with slightly more than $5 billion currently going to the National Cancer Institute to fund researchers here and across the country.

Johnson said cancer researchers hope that the moonshot initiative continues the momentum.

Johnson’s advice to the task force will include advocating an approach that balances greater investment in basic science research and clinical trials, with more focus on preventing cancer.

She also wants the task force to address the growing concern among cancer centers such as Roswell Park about health insurers cutting them from networks, potentially denying patients from using their services.

“Our care is more expensive, and we have a challenge to reduce costs and maintain good outcomes. But people should have access to NCI-designated cancer centers,” Johnson said.

The vice president and others have talked generally about encouraging greater collaboration, use of data, and increased enrollment by patients in clinical trials of promising treatments. For instance, the National Cancer Institute earlier this month announced the launch of the Genomic Data Commons, a unified data system to promote sharing of genomic and medical data among researchers that the agency characterized as a key component of the moonshot effort.

Cancer researchers, doctors and others have praised the initiative. But it also has prompted skepticism, including concern over whether Congress will provide enough funding to accomplish the task force recommendations.

The Roswell Park summit will feature comments and discussions by Rep. Brian Higgins, D-Buffalo; Dr. Kunle Odunsi, deputy director of the cancer center; Jackie Cornell-Bechelli, regional director of the federal Department of Health & Human Services; Bill Sherman, vice president of government relations for the American Cancer Society’s Cancer Action Network; and Susan C. Roney, a Buffalo attorney and lung cancer survivor.

Significant strides have been made against individual cancers. Death rates have decreased since the administration of President Richard M. Nixon declared “war on cancer” in 1971, although the decline in cigarette smoking and earlier detection account for much of the improvement.

Cancer is the second-leading cause of death in the United States, behind heart disease. Nearly 600,000 cancer-related deaths are expected this year, according to the American Cancer Society.

Perspectives on cancer have changed in recent years. Scientists now see cancer as a highly complicated collection of hundreds of different diseases of genes and gene mutations.