Here's One Foundation That's Bought a Ticket on Obama's "Cancer Moonshot"

"Obama's Cancer Moonshot" may just be the new "Nixon's War on Cancer," but moonshot is still a pretty good metaphor. For one thing, it's way more positive. "Moonshot" implies an exciting challenge; "war" is not a happy endeavor. There's another way that moonshot makes more sense than war: cancer isn't a single enemy. There are more than 100 different kinds. (Googled it.)  

People have described the War on Cancer as a mostly losing proposition—not too much was actually cured. But that isn't the point. Research into cancer was and remains a crucial challenge. What's really important today are political will and financial commitment, which we're seeing in the latest round of the Cancer Moonshot's public-private partnerships.

Now, before we say more on this endeavor, we should make the obvious point that big cancer initiatives have been piling up fast lately. Earlier this year, we covered the rollout of Sean Parker' $250 milion push for breakthroughs on cancer immunotherapy. We also wrote about the new $125-million Immunotherapy Center at Johns Hopkins University, backed by Mike Bloomberg, Sidney Kimmel and other donors, which was unveiled in March. Then there's the Cancer MoonShot 2020 Program, announced in January by biotech billionaire Patrick Soon-Shiong, also with a focus on immunotherapy. 


Oh, and let's not forget about the previous existing infrastructure of anti-cancer philanthropy efforts, such as Stand Up for Cancer and a little outfit called the American Cancer Society. 

With so many choices, new and old, for attacking cancer, what's a philanthropist to do? Well, it can never hurt to get behind the leader of the free world, and some donors are aligning with the White House moonshot initative. The Laura and John Arnold Foundation is one of them, with three grants that revolve largely around computers and data science. It's new terrain for LJAF, which has mostly funded social programs in criminal justice, education, public finance and other program areas. But as we've reported, this funder has taken a growing interest in health issues lately and has also long been keen to improve the integrity of scientific research. 

One grant will fund the Digital Mammography DREAM Challenge, a competition to improve early detection of breast cancer. LJAF will award up to $1.2 million to data scientists and others to improve the accuracy of mammography.  

A second grant is designed to advance big data applications in cancer treatment. It will allow Harvard Medical School and Harvard Business School to run computer coding competitions focused on addressing other technological challenges in cancer research through the use of privacy-protected data.

A third grant will help fund an effort to expand clinical trials for cancer and Alzheimer’s disease. The grant will fund a collaboration to develop software that will store patient data from hundreds of registries in a secure database, allowing researchers and hospitals to search more efficiently for research trial participants.

A key figure at LJAF in this area is Mike Stebbins, its vice president of science and technology. He joined the foundation about a year ago, after serving six years as assistant director for biotechnology at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy.