Shooting for the Moon: The New Cancer Space Race

Roxanne Nelson, BSN, RN | January 28, 2016

In all the publicity surrounding the "moonshot" for cancer announced recently by President Obama, there was little attention given to another huge cancer research project, which is also shooting for the moon.

The other shot at the moon was announced, albeit with a little less fanfare, by Patrick Soon-Shiong, MD, founder and CEO of the biotech firm NantWorks. At a press event in San Francisco held on January 11, he laid out provocative plans for the launch of the National Immunotherapy Coalition (NIC), which will form the basis of Cancer Breakthroughs 2020.

"Sometimes people do things and it creates exponential change in mankind," Dr Soon-Shiong said during the press event. "I truly believe with the advent of whole-genomic sequencing proteomics, that we can truly move cancer and lead ourselves to a cure."

In a statement, he pointed out that the "era of immunotherapy has taken the oncology world by storm. For the first time in 40 years, there is a glimmer that we may be able to win this war against cancer."

For the first time in 40 years, there is a glimmer that we may be able to win this war against cancer.

Large pharmaceutical and biotech companies are developing dozens of agents to activate the immune system, he explained. "The problem is that while these drugs are being developed individually in silos by each entity, they need to act together when it comes to activating the immune system. If we follow the current path of drug development, it may take 40 or 50 years before we have worked out the right cocktail combination and countless lives will be lost as a result of this inefficiency."

He has collected many of these efforts into a coalition that has a single focus: to accelerate the potential of combination immunotherapies as the next-generation standard of care for cancer patients.

The hope is to get competing drug and biotech companies to work together on combination therapies and share data, rather than developing and testing their own compounds in isolation.

To that end, the NIC plans to design, initiate, and complete randomized clinical trials in cancer patients, at all stages of the disease, in up to 20 tumor types, and to have as many as 20,000 participants in randomized phase 2 trials by 2020.

These findings will inform phase 3 trials, with the goal of developing an effective vaccine-based immunotherapy to treat cancer.

Thus far, the NIC network includes large pharmaceutical companies, such as Celgene and Amgen, and biotech companies, such as NantWorks, NantKwest, Etubics, Altor Bioscience, and Precision Biologics. Participating academic cancer centers include the Cancer Center at the Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston, Columbia University in New York City, the University of Utah in Salt Lake City, Tufts Cancer Center at Tufts Medical Center in Boston, and the University of Arizona in Tucson.

In addition, this alliance includes Independence Blue Cross, one of the nation's largest payers and the first major insurer to offer reimbursement for next-generation whole-genome sequencing, which is an integral part of the envisioned clinical trial program.

As for the cost of bringing 2020 to fruition, no estimates or hard numbers have been released. But a full-genome sequencing costs around $30,000 and a panel of about 300 genes costs around $9000, which can get very pricey for 20,000 patients. Independence Blue Cross has said it will cover genomic testing for its members and Dr Soon-Shiong has reportedly promised to help cover funding from his own foundation, the Chan Soon-Shiong Family Foundation. In addition, Bank of America, one of the largest self-insured companies in the United States, has partnered with the coalition.

In his speech about the cancer moonshot, President Obama highlighted the fact that Congress had agreed to a $264 million funding boost for the National Cancer Institute.

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