As the National Cancer Act turns 50 years old this year, federal leaders are highlighting how cancer care progressed through the years and discussed the technology innovation that's still to come. Leaders at the National Cancer Institute welcomed First Lady Jill Biden in a virtual meeting with agency researchers Wednesday to highlight progress in cancer care access, clinical trial developments and even support for the COVID-19 pandemic.
"The president and I stand with you,” Biden said, in her remarks about how cancer has impacted her own life.
“The first time I heard the diagnosis for someone I loved was in my early 40s, and the year it happened, not one but actually four of my friends found out that they had breast cancer,” Biden said. “Cancer took the life of both my parents. My sister had to have an auto-stem cell transplant. And then there was our son, Beau, as you refer to. Cancer touches us all.”
Cancer care innovation has been a presidential priority before under the Obama administration, when President Joe Biden was vice president. In 2016, NCI launched the Cancer Moonshot initiative to accelerate cancer research progress. The initiative received funding over seven years with the passing of the 21st Center Cures Act that year.
The first lady praised NCI for its efforts toward cancer research in general as well as those done under the Moonshot initiative.
“You’ve brought the Cancer Moonshot to where it is today,” Biden said. “You’ve dedicated years to studying our immune systems and supporting clinical trials. You’ve lifted up community-based clinics and treatment research. You’ve led breakthroughs and discovered new ways to test, and though this last year has been so difficult, NCI has risen to meet the challenge, uncovering how this pandemic has affected rates and figuring out how to continue this work — your work.”
NCI Director Dr. Ned Sharpless introduced three leading NCI researchers who highlighted how decades of work and funding have led to cutting-edge advancements in cancer research and treatment.
For one, NCI Community Oncology Research Program Director Dr. Worta McCaskill-Stevens, highlighted advancements the agency has made in broadening clinical trials by improving access and seeking ways to increase participation in these trials.
“We’ve learned a lot from the community sites,” McCaskill-Stevens said of her program's 46 community sites. “This has led us to great insights about the importance, for example, of understanding chronic diseases, diabetes and hypertension, which is so prevalent in underserved communities.”
The program has also engaged in individualized or precision trials through efforts like the Trial Assigning Individual Options for Treatment (TAILORx) trial. McCaskill-Stevens said NCI enrolled over 10,000 women into this precision cancer trial and found that only about 20% of women with early-stage breast cancer benefit from chemotherapy after surgery.
“These data affect and apply to 50% of breast cancer in the United States,” McCaskill-Stevens added. “We now know using a molecular test that we can identify those women who only need entire endocrine therapy to reduce the risk of recurrence. These women now don’t have to have chemotherapy side effects, such as nausea, fatigue, risk of infection or hair loss.”
Another leader, NCI Research Staff Clinician Dr. Stephanie Goff, discussed cellular immunotherapy, or the attempt to get the body’s immune cells to identify and attack cancer cells.
“If we can find those [antibody] cells, what can we learn from them, and how can we give them back to patients?” Goff said. “If we can harness that, then we can just set the bodies on top of itself to the Achilles heel of that cancer, that it has changed and made itself visible.”
Cellular immunotherapy has only emerged in recent years as a potentially viable alternative treatment for cancer. With the many families who are suffering from the disease, Goff is thankful that NCI gives her team the resources to continue pioneering new solutions and treatment options for patients.
The final official, NCI Director of the Vaccine, Immunity and Cancer Program Dr. Ligia Pinto, led work at the Frederick National Laboratory for Cancer Research in serology, which measures antibodies in the blood and predicts response to infection or vaccination. This program had a huge impact in the national COVID-19 response.
“COVID-19 serology tests [have been] our public health tools for identifying individuals who were previously infected with SARS CoV-2 or were vaccinated and therefore may be protected against the new infection,” Pinto said. “My laboratory at the Frederick National Lab has leveraged our expertise in studying immune responses to human papilloma virus infection and cervical cancer vaccines to develop serology tests and standards that are relevant to understand SARS CoV-2 to infection and immune responses to the virus.”
At the beginning of the pandemic as the nation was learning about and seeking serology tests for COVID-19, the Food and Drug Administration asked Pinto’s lab to assist in the evaluation of commercially available antibody tests for COVID-19, which she said lead to the evaluation of more than 100 tests and eventual approval of tests used today.
Recently, NCI launched an initiative called the Serology Sciences Network, Pinto added. It is one of the largest coordinated efforts across 25 of the country’s top biomedical research institutions to collaboratively study immune responses to COVID-19.
“We believe that this collaborative network is an outstanding resource for tackling the emerging challenges associated with new viral variants and understanding their potential impact on antibody testing and vaccine efficacy,” Pinto added.
The first lady called the National Institutes of Health the “national institutes of hope,” meaning the collaboration and commitment that NCI and other NIH institutes give to medicine and science give her and other Americans hope.
“So many people in this country are patients that have cancer or have someone they love that’s dealing with cancer,” Biden said. “One thing that we found when in the Obama administration was the benefit of collaboration and how much that meant, whether it was through all the agencies of the government just working together."