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July 22, 2022

To help ‘Cancer Moonshot,’ HHS secretary offers to support sample collection marketing

Credit: The Frederick News-Post, Mary Grace Keller

U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra, in a visit to the National Cancer Institute in Frederick on Friday, offered to support marketing efforts to help the institute obtain more cancer samples to further research.

Becerra was joined by Senators Ben Cardin and Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., and Rep. David Trone, D-6.

In a roundtable discussion, doctors from NCI and the National Institutes of Health highlighted their research and how they aim to accomplish the federal Cancer Moonshot initiative.

In February, President Joe Biden reignited the initiative, which was launched in 2016. The Cancer Moonshot has an ambitious goal — cutting the cancer death rate in half over the next 25 years.

To assist with research, NCI creates models of specific cancer types, derived from pea-sized tumor material obtained from consenting patients, according to Dr. Melinda Hollingshead, who oversees NCI’s Patient-Derived Models Repository.

The NCI repository is open to cancer researchers in the U.S. and abroad. The 636 models available represent a variety of rare and more prevalent cancers.

Some pieces of tumors are frozen and can be used up to 30 years later, according to Hollingshead.

“To move science forward, you have to have something to study,” Hollingshead said at the roundtable.

Having a diverse range of tumor samples is important to NCI, Hollingshead said, and it has tried to get samples from underrepresented disease types and underrepresented populations of people.

Becerra wanted to know why there are not more patients giving samples, considering participation is free.

NCI Deputy Director Dr. Jim Doroshow said he thinks marketing is a factor.

“Maybe there’s a need to kind of stand up some type of program that actually helps do that marketing. I can’t imagine it’d be too expensive,” Becerra said. “Maybe for a low price, we can help you all be able to market that better.”

Becerra expanded on the topic after the roundtable.

“I think what we’re talking about is something as simple as helping do the marketing — it’s got to be pennies on the dollar — to get the result of having a whole lot of samples of a cancer that could ultimately lead to research that saves a life of someone in the future,” Becerra said in an interview.

Health and Human Services may also be able to assist with obtaining diverse samples.

Dr. Ala Stanford, HHS Region 3 director, said the area she oversees includes medical schools in Philadelphia and historically Black colleges and universities in the D.C. and Maryland area.

“If you want that diverse population, that’s something that can be introduced, for example, at a community meeting from a trusted messenger where we can help,” Stanford told the roundtable.

In an interview, Stanford said academic institutions, Black colleges and universities, and faith-based organizations could help encourage the local community to increase the database.

Becerra said NIH is the place to be considering the Biden administration’s support of Cancer Moonshot.

The secretary also said there is global interest in NIH’s work. Germany’s health minister, Becerra said, recently expressed interest in connecting with NIH soon because of its work in response to COVID-19 and monkeypox.

Becerra said Trone also encouraged him to visit the facility in Frederick.

Trone, a cancer survivor, said he wanted Becerra and Maryland’s senators to take a closer look at the cancer research happening in Frederick. Trone’s cancer was discovered in a routine blood screening — something Becerra said an estimated 10 million Americans skipped during the pandemic.

Becerra said Van Hollen and Cardin have also been committed supporters of NIH.

Cardin in an interview said it is “critically important” to provide predictable funding so NCI and NIH can continue their work.

“We have the unbelievable resource for the world right here in Maryland,” Trone said. “The work they’re doing here is groundbreaking and makes a real difference.”