Can "Moon Shot" for Cancer Cure Overcome Data Sharing Problems?

When Vice President Biden lost his 46-year-old son Beau to brain cancer, Americans mourned with him. Motivated by his son's death, Biden is at the forefront of a "moon shot" for cancer cure, an initiative launched by President Obama in his last State of the Union Address.

A concerted government effort to eradicate cancer may remind older Americans of President Nixon's 1971 War on Cancer Act. In a span of three years, Nixon poured 200 million dollars-- $1.1 billion in 2016, adjusted for inflation-- into screening thousands for potential anti-cancer agents, confident that researchers would find the perfect drug cure within a few years. But a rudimentary understanding of cancer in the 70's led Americans to underestimate their enemy, and the war on cancer continues to this day.

Will Biden's Moonshot be any different? In February, the White House announced the allocation of an additional one billion dollars for cancer research for fiscal year 2017. While funds will help advance research for new cures, the White House statement highlighted the importance of data sharing among cancer researchers. Biden says the science for cancer has long been ready, but "results are trapped in silos, preventing faster progress and greater reach to patients." The moon shot means to double the rate of cancer research progress by increasing data accessibility among private industries, government officials, physicians, and philanthropists.

But these plans may unearth the reluctance of data sharing by medical institutions created by the privatization and commercialization of the research industry.

Data sharing has been an urgent global problem in the research world for the past 25 years . Andrew Vickers, a research methodologist, describes several instances of researchers' hesitance to share their data. When the National Institute of Health (NIH) requested results from a previous trial to supplement a chemotherapy study, the research group rejected the request, claiming that the data were not ready for release. Responses from other groups ranged from "I would love to send you these data but my statistician won't allow it," to no response at all.

Despite these explanations, scientists' distrust among research groups and fear that others may steal data for publication are more likely reasons for the lack of data transparency. Although the NIH requires all clinical trial groups to submit raw data, only one out of ten published articles include full results.The shortage of federal enforcement and regulation of research groups has led to major clinical data hoarding, making it complicated when research groups want to replicate trials to help release new drugs into the market.

Additionally, nearly one-third of clinical studies with negative results remain unpublished published. Clinical trials of cancer drugs are among the most abundant of all clinical trials, meaning a great portion of cancer data is never shared. When drug trials don't show positive results, medical journals are less likely to publish the study. While the International Committee of Medical Journal Editors requires public registration of all clinical studies, it does not require full disclosure of results. Chris Kratochvil, University of Nebraska vice chancellor of clinical studies says full disclosure of results is important to advance science whether or not results are positive. Without the complete data of clinical studies, researchers cannot get a full picture of how drugs work.

Certainly, Biden's influence in the political sphere could facilitate a conversation between the private and public sectors of the medical industry and introduce new legislation to create incentives for data sharing. But the White House's vague press release about the Cancer Moon Shot gives the public too few details about the immediate plan of action, leaving many doubting whether the initiative will bear fruit in the eight months Biden has left in office.