Can the Cancer Moonshot Program Move Beyond the Rhetoric?

OncologyLiveVol. 17/No. 7
Volume 17
Issue 7

One hopes that the infrastructure established to support the Moonshot initiative will serve as an effective counterbalance to the efforts to derail activities critical to improving cancer outcomes.

Maurie Markman, MD

The Moonshot initiative to “make America the country that cures cancer once and for all” that President Obama announced during his State of the Union address in January has generated the responses one would anticipate from a variety of audiences.1,2 An expected increase in federal funding for the National Cancer Institute is welcomed by academic leaders, their institutions, research-oriented organizations, and cancer advocacy groups.

However, many others in the oncology arena find the metaphor of a “moonshot” troubling. It sends a message that cancer—that is “all cancer”— can be cured, just like a war can be won or “we can land a man on the moon,” if we simply provide sufficient funding and, as a society, we make the effort a true national commitment. Of course, the dollar figure to attain this goal will certainly be very high and the timeline perhaps a little fuzzy, but it can be accomplished.

Simplistic Statements Belie Facts

For quite understandable reasons, such language has great appeal to the general public and politicians on both sides of the aisle. Cancer is surely an “enemy” and if it can be eliminated shouldn’t we make such an effort to accomplish this worthy goal?Unfortunately, it is increasingly certain that this rhetoric has preciously little, if any, biological foundation. Cancer is not one, not 100, or not even 1000 different diseases. Rather, it is a massive group of conditions, highly molecularly heterogeneous between individuals and even within the same individual.

Further, it is now well recognized that rather substantial and clinically relevant molecular changes that may drive a cancer to spread and become resistant to treatment frequently occur during the natural history of a malignancy in a single individual. In addition, such changes may be substantially magnified under the biological pressure of therapy.

Therefore, arguing that sufficient funding and a strong desire will result in the discovery of a “cure for all cancer” must surely suggest to most knowledgeable observers a striking lack of understanding of the basic biology of malignant disease, an essential disregard for communicating objective scientific truths, or perhaps a combination of these and other factors. A simple-minded goal “to cure all cancer” fails to acknowledge the reality of the challenge.

Rescuing the Concept

As a result, the legitimate goal of focusing public support for vital cancer research may lose its momentum as critics cite these objections, with some even claiming that federal officials are seriously uninformed, naïve, or outright disingenuous.However, there is a context in which the concept of a “moonshot” and the use of the term is appropriate— and that is if one considers that a critical feature of the space exploration efforts was the eventual goal to land a man on the moon. This focus resulted in the development of an infrastructure involving multiple essential partners to achieve this end result. These partners included the companies that built and assembled the many complex components within the spacecraft, numerous academic physics and engineering departments, the experts who selected the astronauts and guided their intense training, and government funding agencies.

The enhanced collaboration and cooperation that led to the first lunar landing optimized efficiency and ensured quality while at the same time recognizing the non-negotiable requirement that the goal be accomplished.

In the current discussion of the Moonshot cancer research program, the desired outcome is not that a particular study arm is shown to be beneficial (although one always hopes for such a finding), but rather that a given therapeutic concept or a specific drug/combination regimen has been efficiently, cost effectively, and fairly evaluated.

If the findings are positive, the concept/drug would appropriately move forward for further evaluation and would perhaps subsequently be introduced into routine medical care. Conversely, if the outcome of a given clinical trial or a research strategy failed to produce a meaningful clinical benefit, that also would be very important to learn and then report to both the oncology community and the general public. The infrastructure being established to permit the development of a national Moonshot initiative will hopefully result in multiple clinical trials focused on real-world patients, and not on the highly selected 2% to 3% of individuals who currently participate in cancer studies and who simply are not representative of the larger community of patients with cancer seen in daily medical practice when such factors as age, the presence of comorbidities, and prior treatment history are considered.

In addition to an essential infrastructure that permits a far more meaningful examination of the clinical utility of a wide variety of cancer therapeutics, it will be critical that such efforts provide answers to clinically relevant questions in a timeline measured in one to several years rather than a decade or longer.

Finally, it is hoped that as a part of this Moonshot initiative, the government will use its rhetorical powers of persuasion, as well as its powerful regulatory and funding arms, to strongly encourage participation among all parties. It is fully anticipated that a major or even monumental effort will be required to break down the substantial barriers to cooperation that currently exist among a variety of groups who have a recognized vested interest in maintaining the status quo. For example, certain academics have already expressed their strong displeasure with widely sharing clinical trial data, even though the intent of such sharing is to promote more rapid understanding of the potential clinical implications of a variety of findings. A new and rather derogatory term (research parasites) has been coined, apparently to describe scientists and clinical investigators who desire to move these initiatives rapidly forward by leveraging the work of other researchers.3

One hopes that the infrastructure established to support the Moonshot initiative will serve as an effective counterbalance to these not unexpected but still disturbing and often quite self-serving efforts to derail activities critical to improving cancer outcomes.

Maurie Markman, MD, editor-in-chief of OncologyLive, is president of Medicine & Science at Cancer Treatment Centers of America, and clinical professor of Medicine, Drexel University College of Medicine.


  1. Remarks of President Barack Obama—State of the Union address as delivered. White House Briefing Room. Posted January 13, 2016. Accessed March 11, 2016.
  2. Kolata G, Harris G. ‘Moonshot’ to cure cancer, to be led by Biden, relies on outmoded view of disease. New York Times. January 14, 2016:A17.
  3. Longo DL, Drazen JM. Data sharing. N Engl J Med. 2016;374(3): 276-277.

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