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Obama Task Force Director On The Cancer 'Moonshot' Initiative


Back in January at the president's State of the Union address, there was one ambitious announcement that stood out.


BARACK OBAMA: Let's make America the country that cures cancer once and for all. What do you think, Joe?


CORNISH: President Obama put Vice President Joe Biden in charge of what is now called the Cancer Moonshot Task Force. The mission is as ambitious as putting a man on the moon used to be - eliminate cancer as we know it. The task force now has an executive director - Greg Simon. He's been on the job for a week and a half, and he joins me now. Greg Simon, welcome to the program.

GREG SIMON: Thank you.

CORNISH: So talk about exactly what this task force is supposed to do, especially in so short a period of time, right? President Obama's tenure's coming to a close.

SIMON: Well, it is a short period of time, but there are very few problems that are holding us back in cancer research that are unknown. We know what the problems are, and now we need to start the action to deal with those problems because the overarching goal of this initiative is to achieve 10 years of progress in five years.

Now, there are some things that can't be speeded up. You can't do a three-minute egg in one minute, but you don't have to spend six weeks setting it up. And that's often what we do in science. So we're looking at, how can we share data from cancer centers to cancer centers to accelerate knowledge transfer? We're looking at how to communicate with the public the importance of being in clinical trials. We're looking at the importance of the pharmaceutical industry of opening up their compound libraries for more people to explore possible therapeutic agents in those libraries.

CORNISH: You mentioned this idea of getting different cancer center databases to share information. What are the obstacles to that right now?

SIMON: Well, there are cultural obstacles. People tend to want to keep the data in their institution because that data is valuable. It can lead to new therapies. It can lead to new ways to treat patients, and people want them to come to their center.

Our technology for sharing has improved faster than our attitude about sharing, and that's part of what the vice president is doing - is helping change that attitude so that people realize the more you share, the more you have.

CORNISH: Now, you have worked with the medical company Pfizer. You've worked with nonprofits in the cancer care industry. Fundamentally, this is still business, and people are competing with each other.

SIMON: That's true, but this is sort of the tragedy of the commons example. If people don't take care of a common space, it deteriorates, and everybody suffers. The common space here is people surviving cancer. Academia is not very good at taking a drug to market, and they're not very good, and they shouldn't be that good at raising billions of dollars for those clinical trials and the cost of bringing a drug to market.

The pharmaceutical industry is very good at clinical trials and marketing, but they tend not to often have the trust of the people they're trying to help. There are many foundations that want to partner with the pharmaceutical industry to do research into a rare disease that would otherwise not be funded. And the foundations bring money, and they bring patients. But what they don't have are the scientists to develop the drug.

And those collaborations are a way that we can link patient community and the pharmaceutical community for both people's benefits.

CORNISH: Do you worry about overselling what can accomplished here? I mean, it's called the Cancer Moonshot Initiative. Do you think people think you're going to cure caner altogether?

SIMON: Well, we try to avoid giving the impression that in between now and the end of term we're going to cure cancer now and forever, but what we can do, is we can identify what needs to be done and put the power of the vice president and the president behind it while we're here and create a blueprint for any next administration to take this forward because the kind of issues we're dealing with are things that can ease the path for the scientist out there to do their job better.

You know, I always say that the people who are in the system don't have the time to fix the system. They're too busy trying to save our lives with new drugs and therapies. But those of us on the outside - it's our job to fix the system. And there are plenty of things in the system that are totally amenable to being improved this year and over the next several years that will save lives.

CORNISH: Greg Simon is executive director of the White House Cancer Moonshot Task Force. Thank you so much for speaking with us.

SIMON: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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