The Cancer Moonshot Initiative: What’s next?

The Cancer Moonshot Initiative: What’s next?

The National Cancer Moonshot Initiative was announced by President Barack Obama during his final State of the Union address.

The goal was to achieve a decade’s worth of progress in cancer prevention within 5 years. The president announced that Vice President Joe Biden would spearhead the bold new initiative. Biden lost his 46-year old son Beau to brain cancer in 2015.

The Moonshot dedicated $1.8 billion for cancer research over 7 years. When it was announced, it was thrilling news for the “dream team” of pediatric cancer researchers at the UW Carbone Cancer Center who are working on new therapies for childhood cancers.

Dr. Paul Sondel, the director of Pediatric Oncology at the UW Carbone Cancer Center, said “to improve prevention, treatment, diagnosis and curing in 5 years with the work that would have otherwise taken 10 years, to double that rate and to put the resources of our country behind it, that was terrific.”

One year after the Moonshot was created, Donald Trump won the presidential election. The U.S. Senate passed a bi-partisan bill, the 21st Century Cures Act, to secure an allocation of $680 million for this year. In a show of bi-partisanship, Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell stood up before the final vote and declared the Senate should name the bill the Beau Biden Initiative.

Trump has announced his intentions to cut the federal budget for the National Institutes of Health for 2018 by 18 percent or $5.8 billion. Congress will have the final say on the budget but the future of the Moonshot remains unclear.

“I’m optimistic that Congress that voted overwhelmingly to support the 21st Century Cures Act that included the Moonshot. That same Congress, I can’t believe would support an 18 percent cut to the National Institutes of Health and the National Cancer Institute.” Sondel said. “If the budget cut is passed it will have a terrible putting on the brakes effect for cancer research in this country.”

For parents like Kim and Jeff Schuetz, of Fall River, the stakes couldn’t be higher.

“It’s scary because they’re putting possible death sentences on our own kids. They have no idea that if he hadn’t had this, he would have died,” Kim Schuetz said about her 8-year-old son Austin. Austin was diagnosed with leukemia just shy of his third birthday.

Austin’s leukemia did not respond to steroids or chemotherapy. Even a bone marrow transplant didn’t stop the cancer. With all conventional treatments failing, Kim and Jeff took Austin to Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia for a radical new cancer therapy that takes the HIV virus and turns it into a cancer killer.

Emily Whitehead, of Pennsylvania, is the inspirational pioneer of this therapy. In April of 2012 Emily became the first child treated in the trial of T cell therapy for Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia. Emily is now 12 years old and her leukemia is still in complete remission.

“Austin had less than a 20 percent chance of survival after he relapsed after treatment. This was our only option and if it hadn’t been there, Austin would have died,” Kim Schuetz said.

Austin is one of the success stories. He has been in complete remission since being treated three years ago. Austin is now in second grade, happy and healthy with no restrictions for future activities.

“I tell him and I tell everyone, he’s my miracle. He is a miracle child,” Schuetz said.

The Schuetz’s story and the remarkable medical breakthrough that saved Austin’s life was documented by 60 Minutes Australia. Phase 2 of the clinical trial is now in Madison. Patients like Austin are being treated at the American Family Children’s Hospital.