THE BLOG
03/31/2016 05:41 pm ET Updated Apr 01, 2017

Biden's Astronaut Takes Over Moonshot

There's no arguing that Greg Simon's resume is impressive: Influential staff positions in both chambers of Congress and the White House, strategy consultant for technology CEOs, co-founder of a patient advocacy non-profit, senior executive for a big pharmaceutical company. It's easy to see why Vice President Biden tapped him to lead the White House's $1 billion cancer moonshot initiative.

But the achievement that arguably makes Simon most qualified for the task happens to be the one that makes him least unique: Like nearly 20 million other Americans today, he is living with cancer. Diagnosed with chronic lymphocytic leukemia 22 months ago, Simon underwent chemotherapy last year to combat the slow-moving disease that attacks the blood and bone marrow.

His vantage point from the survivor trenches is more critical than any perspective from the war room, since patients are the ones who have been routinely left behind in our haphazard campaign for the cure thus far.

Understanding cancer begins with those who have it. Patients are the ones who drive funding, inform and inspire research, and lend themselves to clinical trials. Whether they are testifying before legislators, lighting thousands of luminarias to raise awareness on the Capitol steps, or networking with each other to share the latest data, patients and their loved ones bring more than just a collective heart and voice of hope to this initiative. The grassroots "cancer community" that has evolved over the past 40 years thrives on the kind of cohesiveness sorely needed among the scientists, oncologists and drug companies who together harbor the brilliant minds and promising technology that can deliver the resounding victory we all deserve.

Simon is known to many of us in the cancer research community, and has a reputation for being able to unite diverse groups to focus on a common goal. His involvement in patient advocacy began more than a decade ago, and he has doggedly pushed at the stubborn boundaries that needlessly slow our progress.

For too long, decisions have been made by pharmaceutical execs and health care providers whose focus is divided between their own bottom line and patient survival. This can delay breakthroughs and prevent patients from receiving effective treatments, rather than producing improvements in care.

The moonshot won't work unless the entire system is overhauled to put the patient at the center instead of profit margins or egos. Collaboration, communication and transparency must be the starting point, not the goal. The culture of competition within the medical community must end. Progress in cancer care is hindered by the reluctance among researchers to share information and data from clinical trials. Attitudes about "research parasites" have resulted in countless hours and funding dollars being wasted on duplicate trials. We need to encourage cooperation and make data sharing a priority in order to move cancer research forward. Transparency drives innovative research, and allows us to learn from previous studies rather than repeat past mistakes. With cancer claiming around 600,000 lives each year in the United States alone - more than 8.2 million worldwide - there is no time left to waste.

The launch of the cancer moonshot has brought medical research to the forefront of public agenda. According a recent Harvard University poll, 83 percent of Americans support the initiative's proposed increase in federal funding for cancer research - with half of those supporters believing that spending needs to be increased even more. They're right, and nothing underscores that more than the burgeoning lung cancer pandemic. The deadliest cancer of all remains the least-funded in terms of research, and the abysmal survival rate - just 16.8 percent - has remained stagnant for decades.

At the Bonnie J. Addario Lung Cancer Foundation, our goal is to make lung cancer a chronically managed disease within 10 years by funding clinical research and providing vital patient programs. The patient-centric, non-profit international consortium we created with the Addario Lung Cancer Medical Institute proves that progress can be greatly accelerated through collaboration and dedicated research infrastructures such as centralized tissue banks and data systems. In just a few short years, for example, we've already seen exciting advances with a groundbreaking study of the genomics of young cancer. We're breaking the code to understand why lung cancer occurs in young adults who are otherwise healthy and have never smoked.

If the moonshot is to succeed in significantly advancing cancer research, everyone involved in the mission must commit to a more open mindset. As Greg Simon told the New York Times: "If we can create new approaches that are a step away from the road scientists have long been travelling, in a year or two, it will be a different road."

Vice President Biden's nomination of Simon as executive director is a promising first 'step away.' I feel confident that Simon will steer this moonshot in the right direction - toward survival, not self-interest.