Patricia M. LoRusso, DO
Patricia M. LoRusso, DO, professor of medicine (medical oncology) and associate director of Innovative Medicine at Yale Cancer Center, was among a group of 15 top cancer researchers and physician-scientists who met in Washington with aides to Vice President Joe Biden on Jan. 8 to discuss his “moonshot” program to advance cancer treatment.
The panel, convened by the American Association for Cancer Research (AACR), met with the vice president’s staff just days before President Obama’s State of the Union address, in which he announced a national effort to find innovative treatments for cancer and designated Biden, who lost his 46-year-old son to cancer last year, as “mission control.”
The AACR group—a cross section of cancer researchers and clinicians that included pathologists, pediatricians, and experts in genetic profiling—met for 90 minutes with members of Biden’s staff in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building. “They were knowledgeable, asked very good questions, and were really receptive,” said LoRusso, a member of the AACR board. “I was very impressed.”
Biden launched the Cancer MoonShot 2020 Program last October, when he called for a “national commitment to end cancer as we know it today.” Among its goals are to increase funding for cancer research and “break down silos” so that researchers can share data and work together.
At the Jan. 8 meeting, Biden’s staff asked what could be done to advance cancer research and make treatments available and accessible to most patients.
LoRusso said the AACR group had several suggestions. Among them was encouraging insurers to cover the cost of genomic sequencing in cancer treatment. Although institutions like Yale can absorb that cost, insurance carriers, including Medicare, don’t cover what has become a key component of cancer care, she said.
The researchers and clinicians also called for increased sharing of clinical and research data. Currently, LoRusso said, data is recorded and stored across the country in systems that can’t communicate with each other. “If you’ve got all these people doing research with different platforms and different databases, how do we bring this together so we can benefit the patient?” she asked. “How are we going to share data as an entire cancer community instead of keeping it hoarded in pockets?”
The AACR, she said, has launched a data-sharing consortium of 10 research institutions, called Project GENIE (Genomics, Evidence, Neoplasia, Information, Exchange), which links genetic profiles of tumors with clinical outcomes in order to facilitate clinical decision-making. It is anticipated that this program will expand after the initial institutions work towards defining potential problems and enhance the transparency of the process.
The meeting with Biden’s staff followed a five-hour meeting with officials at the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), where they discussed challenges in implementing diagnostic tools and ways to make diagnostics more “user-friendly.” As cancer treatment becomes more genome-centric, LoRusso said, clinicians are finding that many treatments and diagnostic tools may have multiple uses but limitations in FDA approval uses. The FDA is working towards improving these processes and breaking down such barriers, she said.
“We need to move this forward,” she said. “The time is now.”