Spotlight on Cancer Moonshot 2020

During this year’s State of the Union address, President Barack Obama announced Cancer Moonshot 2020: a new initiative aimed at eliminating cancer as we know it. Cancer Moonshot 2020 plans to break down barriers and enable progress by enhancing data access, facilitating collaborations, and investing in the development of new technologies and treatments. We applaud this initiative not only for its emphasis on eliminating the burden of cancer, but also for its practical approaches and acknowledgement of the complexities of this mission.

“The initiative aims to bring about a decade’s worth of advances in five years, making more therapies available to more patients, while also improving our ability to prevent cancer and detect it at an early stage.”

The single most important factor for a patient’s prognosis is at what stage the cancer is diagnosed. Consider this: the 5-year relative survival rate for breast cancer is 100% at Stage I, but only 22% at Stage IV.1 Yet, at least half of all cancers in the U.S. are diagnosed in stage III or IV.2 Cancer Moonshot 2020 could make a significant impact by supporting screening programs and investing in new technologies for early detection.

Evidence suggests that mass population screening can be effective for certain cancers including breast, cervical, and colorectal cancers. This initiative could establish or support programs that encourage at-risk populations to participate in screenings. They could also promote media and consumer-facing brands to champion this message and shine a light on the importance of proactive screening.

Cancer Moonshot 2020 could also support early detection efforts by investing in innovative technologies and influencing regulatory agencies to develop more efficient paths to commercialization. A range of new products are being developed that could benefit from initiative support. Some seek to improve outcomes by enabling cancer detection at the earliest possible stage. Others seek to evaluate how a patient’s immune system responds to cancer by profiling their unique immune biology. Cancer Moonshot 2020 could support these technologies by creating new sources of funding and advocating for streamlined regulatory paths.

“We are at an inflection point, and the science is ready for the concerted new effort this initiative will deliver.”

Advances in our understanding of cancer and the immune system have led to a new wave of therapies that target the immune system rather than the tumor. These immunotherapies take advantage of the immune system’s natural ability to recognize and eliminate cancer. Tumors progress when they are able to evade or subvert the immune system – making the battle between cancer and the immune system a complex mix of activity and inhibition. Thus, the key to improving outcomes for the majority of patients is to combine treatments that stimulate the immune system or limit the tumor’s ability to evade immune destruction.

One example of a rational combination therapy is the combination of OncoSec’s ImmunoPulse™ IL-12 and a checkpoint inhibitor. Checkpoint therapies can work extremely well for a subset of patients, but most patients do not respond to these promising new drugs. Data suggest ImmunoPulse™ IL-12 might enhance response to checkpoint therapies because of its ability to generate anti-cancer immune activity. Researchers at University of California, San Francisco are currently investigating this combination with support from industry collaborators.

While the promise is real for combinations like this, there are still significant barriers to collaboration that could slow progress. This is where Cancer Moonshot 2020 can do a great deal of good. The reported $1 billion in funds they plan to raise may make an impact on regulatory processes, by supporting new regulatory pathways for combination approaches. It could also influence agencies like the FDA to consider how a therapeutic could work in combination, rather than emphasizing single-agent response rates. Drug development is an area where funds might dry up quickly, but new guidance and influence could go a long way in supporting this mission.


  1. Breast cancer survival by stage. American Cancer Society.
  2. Cancer treatment and survivorship facts and figures 2014-2015. American Cancer Society.