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Can America come together to cure cancer?

January 14, 2016 at 6:35 PM EDT
In his last State of the Union address, President Obama tapped Vice President Joe Biden to lead an effort to boost and streamline national cancer research. What would such an initiative look like? Judy Woodruff gets insight from Dr. Francis Collins of the National Institutes of Health, Dr. Otis Brawley of the American Cancer Society and Katie Couric of Stand Up To Cancer.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But, first, what the White House is calling the moon shot to cure cancer. One unexpected announcement in President Obama’s State of the Union address came when he tapped Vice President Joe Biden to lead an effort to boost and streamline cancer research across the country.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Tonight, I’m announcing a new national effort to get it done. And because he’s gone to the mat for all of us on so many issues over the past 40 years, I’m putting Joe in charge of mission control.


PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: For the loved ones we’ve all lost, for the families that we can still save, let’s make America the country that cures cancer once and for all.

What do you say, Joe?


JUDY WOODRUFF: For a look at what an initiative might look like, and who would be involved, and how it might go forward, we turn to three people with long ties to cancer research.

Dr. Otis Brawley is chief medical officer at the American Cancer Society. Dr. Francis Collins is the director of the National Institutes of Health. And Katie Couric, in addition to being the well-known journalist and author, she is also one of the co-founders of Stand Up to Cancer. It’s a charitable group that supports collaborative research.

And we welcome all three of you to the program.

Dr. Brawley, let me start with you.

Is it realistic for the president to say, let’s cure cancer once and for all?

DR. OTIS BRAWLEY, American Cancer Society: Well, I think the cure analogy is fine.

What’s really going to happen is some cancers, if we intensify our efforts, will be cured. Many cancers are going to be stalled out to where they become very chronic diseases, like diabetes. But the end result is, people are going to be better for it.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Francis Collins, Dr. Collins, do you agree? I mean, we know there are, what, over 100 — maybe hundreds of types of cancer? What are people to think about this?

DR. FRANCIS COLLINS, National Institutes of Health: Well, I hope they will be inspired and excited about this.

Yes, there are hundreds of types of cancer, but we are at an inflection point in terms of things we are learning about what causes this disease, where good cells go bad, and what could we do about it? And by bring together immunotherapy, the new way of activating the immune system to tackle cancel, genomics, and making sure that everybody is sharing the data they’re developing in those kinds of studies, the vice president, a man of great passion and principle, is determined that this is not going to be a tweak on the system.

This is going to be a major acceleration of the effort to discover how to treat and cure, in many instances, cancer. And goodness knows, we can all get excited about that outcome.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And, Katie Couric, as somebody who has been on the advocacy side of this for years, having lost your first husband and your sister to cancer, how do you see the challenge?

KATIE COURIC, Stand Up To Cancer: Well, I think it’s so exciting, Judy, when I heard this announcement at the State of the Union. And it’s — I think we are, as Dr. Collins said, at a really inflection point, and things are happening so much when it comes to immunotherapy, as he said, genomics, the basic science.

And, you know, as somebody who has lost people near and dear to my heart, I — when Vice President Biden lost Beau, I literally felt his pain and frustration. And that’s the way I felt when Jay and Emily died. Why couldn’t there be better treatments?

I remember, Judy, the first-line treatment for metastatic colon cancer for Jay in 1999 — 1997, rather, had been around since the 1950s. And it just made me furious. And that was really the impetus for Stand Up to Cancer.

We said, you know, these researchers, these scientists, they have to collaborate, instead of compete. And we started it in 2008, and now, eight years later, we have — we have 1,000 scientists. We have 130 researcher institutions involved. They’re working on 18 different dream teams, where they’re collaborating on things like pancreatic cancer, lung cancer with the American Cancer Society, childhood cancers.


KATIE COURIC: And it’s — so, and, already, two FDA-approved treatments have stemmed from that kind of research for pancreatic cancer and lung cancer. So, I think collaboration really is the key.

JUDY WOODRUFF: What about that, Dr. Brawley? What would constitute a breakthrough here?

DR. OTIS BRAWLEY: Well, I agree that we need sustained funding and sustained support for the scientists, especially the folks at the National Cancer Institute, who have been wonderful at this.

I do believe that we are at an inflection point. We have learned a lot about what goes on in the cancer cell. A lot of targets that are druggable are being developed. We actually need some command-and-control of the oncology research network in order to advance it further and faster.

JUDY WOODRUFF: What do you mean command-and-control?

DR. OTIS BRAWLEY: Well, we do need people to say, this is a project that needs funding and needs funding urgently. This is a project that’s repetitive and need not be funded. We need people to say, you, as an investigator, need to start talking and collaborating with other investigators. We need to bring industry into this.

We need to bring far more than just government and academics. I would also say the advocacy community needs to be involved. So, there needs to be some collaboration amongst numerous individuals and numerous organizations.

But I actually am very optimistic that we can do some very positive work here.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But, Dr. Collins, how much of this is money? We know something like 265 million more dollars went to the National Cancer Institute over the last few years. You were responsible for a lot of that. Is money the whole story here?

DR. FRANCIS COLLINS: It’s not the whole story, but it sure is helpful.

Investigators who are pursuing really creative ideas in cancer research still have only about one chance in five that their ideas are going to get funded, because although we have now turned the corner — and much credit to the Congress for making that happen a month ago — we still have a long way to go to catch up on the resources that we have lost.

And if we’re really going to jump-start this kind of opportunity for moving cancer research forward at an accelerated pace, resources are going to be critical. We are not lacking for ideas. We’re not lacking for talent. There are all kinds of things happening in this field.

Resources are really critical to make it possible to move forward at the rate that I know we could. Take immunotherapy. We have seen how the immune system, probably in all of us, is searching out and taking care of small numbers of cancer cells every day, and we never even know we had them.

But, sometimes, the cancer cells are clever enough to elude that. We have seen dramatic results in melanoma, President Carter with his metastatic melanoma. Now, apparently, those brain…



DR. FRANCIS COLLINS: … melted away.

But we need to move that into other areas, like pancreatic cancer, like lung cancer, breast cancer, prostate cancer, where the immune system is having an even harder time finding what is there.

But those cancers have abnormal proteins. They should be approachable. We need to teach the immune system, take it to college, take it to graduate school, figure out how we can activate what our own mechanisms might be able to do for us.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And, Katie Couric, from where you stand, that money, do you look to Congress? I mean, what are we talking about here?

KATIE COURIC: Well, of course we need a bigger — I think we need more sustained and funding for government and from Congress and for the NIH, for the NCI.

But I think, to Dr. Brawley’s point, we also need the private sector involved. We have raised — I think close to $360 million has been pledged to Stand Up to Cancer through corporate and private and individual donors. So, we need to come together as a country and say, you know, this has got to be where the end of cancer begins. That’s our motto at Stand Up to Cancer, and really get everyone involved.

And I think, under Vice President Biden’s leadership, he will be able to galvanize the community that can be as political at times, Judy, as TV news, if you can imagine that…


KATIE COURIC: … with a lot of overlapping and competing interests.

So, we really do need to come together as a country, and I think we will able to accomplish incredible things, and especially if we have a more coordinated, sustained effort.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, just quickly from all three of you, Dr. Brawley first, what’s the message that people out there right now who either have cancer or have a loved one with cancer — how much hope should they have right now?

DR. OTIS BRAWLEY: Well, I do want to give everyone who has cancer some hope.

I do think that we need to be much more organized. I do think that command-and-control, where there’s actually a strategic plan, by someone who’s in government — the vice president is ideal because he understands politics. There’s great scientists already to advise him. But we need actually someone to do organization and leadership. So I want to give everyone some hope. I’m very excited about this plan.


DR. FRANCIS COLLINS: I’m excited, too, and I think we are getting the real understanding of cancer that we have needed all along, and that’s translating into ideas about prevention and treatment.

So, anybody listening to this, I think, should feel a sense of hope, a sense of inspiration, a sense we’re on the right track, and we have got the right people and the right smarts, and now maybe some more resources. This is a problem we can eventually solve.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And just quickly, Katie Couric, write a check?

KATIE COURIC: Yes, write a check.

You know, think — if only one in five promising research proposals is funded, that’s four great ideas that are left literally, Judy, on the cutting-room floor.

So, we need to support our scientists. They’re the real heroes and heroines, I think, of our society. We need to give them the money they need to do the work that will help us all.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Katie Couric, Dr. Francis Collins, Dr. Otis Brawley, we thank you, all three.


DR. OTIS BRAWLEY: Thank you.

KATIE COURIC: Thanks, Judy.