"Last year, Vice-President Biden said that with a new moonshot, America can cure cancer. 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 forty years, I'm putting Joe in charge of Mission Control. For the loved ones we've all lost, for the family we can still save; let's make America the country that cures cancer once and for all." - President Barack Obama, 12 January 2016
In January this year, President Barack Obama handed Vice President Joe Biden the task of speeding up progress on curing cancer, backed by a budget of $1bn. Some people have pointed out that $1bn won't even pay for developing one new cancer drug, but that misses the point - Project Moonshot, as it is named, won't simply be pouring money into producing more of the same, it aims to make fundamental changes to the way cancer drugs are developed, by breaking down the barriers to progress.
Joe Biden writes on his blog "We're not trying to make incremental change here, we're trying to get to a quantum leap on the path to a cure."
Curing cancer will take this kind of bold leadership, with vision, courage and determination. Leadership that doesn't shy away from difficult and contentious issues. Leadership that is prepared to aim high rather than play safe. And leadership that puts its money where its mouth is.
What is also interesting here, is that President Obama hasn't put a scientist or cancer researcher in charge of this project, he's put a politician in charge; perhaps because he's come to realise that it is not medical science that is holding back cancer cures, but political and commercial obstacles.
The UK needs to follow the example set by the US and demonstrate its own commitment to breaking down barriers to progress - to speed up the delivery of genuine, affordable cures that cancer patients can access.
So, what are we doing in the UK. What about our bold leadership?
Well, we have Jeremy Hunt (when he's not spending his time alienating doctors and nurses) and a cancer strategy that aims to do little better than the rest of Europe (who we currently lag behind) and which has not even received a funding commitment from the Government, despite its supposed ambitions to put the next generation first.
That isn't bold leadership.
One person dies from cancer somewhere in the world every four seconds, so this isn't the time for lily-livered leadership. We need to be bold - we need to set a goal and a deadline to cure the majority of cancers. And we need to work with other countries to make this goal a reality by resolving issues like conflicts of interest, lack of incentives and barriers to collaboration. The sort of issues that Joe Biden is already looking at. We all hope this will happen but hope is just a wish - a deadline is a commitment.
Dying for a Cure Campaign
In October 2015, I lost my wife to ovarian cancer. Inspired by her incredible courage and strength, I wanted to find a way to use my own experience to change things for the better. So, I decided to take the initiative and launch this campaign to press for much needed market reforms in cancer drug development.
It is well known that the commercial objectives of the pharmaceutical industry are often at odds with the needs of patients and this tug of war between profits and public health acts like a handbrake on progress. Society has put the responsibility for developing cures into the hands of organisations motivated primarily by profits, so it's no surprise that what we've ended up with is very profitable drugs rather than very effective ones.
Lives are being needlessly lost due to:
- profiteering - a lack of regulations to curb excessive profit margins on drug prices, leading to drugs being priced out of reach of patients;
- missed opportunities - a failure to attract investment in promising discoveries with limited commercial potential, or to provide alternative public funding;
- ineffective drugs - a failure to reward development of drugs with greater therapeutic benefit, in order to speed up progress.
These are the symptoms of a failing system that desperately needs to be reformed to better protect the interests of patients. Cure the system and we stand a much better chance of curing cancer sooner.
The US has led the way and we now have a rare opportunity to campaign for market reforms in the UK to speed up cancer cures and bring forward the day when we no longer live in fear of cancer.
It's our chance at a moonshot for cancer and our opportunity to demand the bold leadership that we desperately need. It may be a generation away before we get there, but it's a chance to save the lives of our sons and daughters and generations to follow.
When we look back on this time in history, we will not be proud that we made record profit margins from cancer drugs while one person died of cancer every four seconds, but we can be proud by making a stand to change this.