Ariel Wittenberg and Nico Portundo, E&E News: February 3, 2022
President Biden made an emotional pledge yesterday to “end cancer as we know it” by reinvigorating the Cancer Moonshot initiative he first launched in 2016, just one year after his son Beau succumbed to the disease.
“I committed to this fight when I was vice president. It’s one of the reasons, quite frankly, why I ran for president,” Biden told a room of cancer patients, survivors, caregivers, researchers and advocates.
A lot has changed since Biden first launched the program. This moonshot doesn’t come with any new funding, for example, but the White House says recent progress in cancer therapeutics, diagnostics and patient-driven care, as well as public health lessons learned during the Covid-19 pandemic, mean the initiative can be successful.
Another change in the renewed moonshot: an acknowledgment that environmental exposures can cause cancer.
While the previous Cancer Moonshot largely focused on funding research for treatments and cures for cancer, the renewed effort—whose goal is to reduce cancer death rates by 50 percent in the next 25 years — includes multiple initiatives to prevent cancer.
That includes addressing pollution.
“President Biden described seven areas of focus in which to make progress to end cancer as we know it today,” White House Cancer Moonshot Coordinator Danielle Carnival told E&E News in a statement. “Cancer prevention is one of those pillars and limiting exposure to carcinogens is an important part of preventing cancer.”
Though many in the environmental health field have long understood that chemical exposures can cause cancer and change peoples’ cancer outcomes, that fact hasn’t always been acknowledged by the broader medical community, which has focused more on genetic causes (Greenwire, May 4, 2021).
Linda Birnbaum, who formerly lead the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, told E&E News that she “tried really hard” to get the agency involved in the first moonshot initiative but was met with resistance from the National Cancer Institute.
“Environment is just not something they think about,” she said. “I’m glad to see it is at least mentioned this time.”
‘Just one sentence’
Indeed, cleaning up pollution is just one part of one of the new moonshot’s goals, which also include diagnosing cancer sooner, preventing cancer, addressing inequities, targeting the right treatment for each patient, and ramping up progress against rare and childhood cancers, among other things.
Environmental health experts were quick to note that merely acknowledging chemicals’ impact on cancers is only a first step, and say that the administration would have to do a better job at curbing pollution in order to truly “end cancer as we know it.”
In all of the pomp and circumstance surrounding the new moonshot’s launch, the experts note that environmental factors were mentioned just once in a fact sheet, and not at all in remarks from the president, vice president or first lady. Rather, much of the White House material on cancer prevention focuses on whether the mRNA technology used in Covid-19 vaccines to teach the immune system to respond to the virus could also teach bodies to stop cancer cells when they first appear.
“mRNA technology, yes, let’s spend as much money as we can to try and develop that vaccine, and maybe it will work,” said Diana Zuckerman, president of the National Center for Health Research. “But if you really wanted bang for your buck, you would want to look at environmental issues where prevention will really improve peoples’ health and reduce cancers, and that’s just one sentence here.”
Julie Brody, executive director of the Silent Spring Institute, said she wanted the moonshot to “take a bigger approach to prevention and environmental chemicals in particular,” citing a “revolution in how we think about causes of cancer” since the previous moonshot was launched.
But when White House officials discussed cancer prevention in a call with reporters earlier this week, environmental issues didn’t come up at all.
“We know cancer is a disease where we have too few effective ways to prevent it,” said one senior administration official. “There are some: don’t smoke, for example. But we don’t have lots of effective ways right now to prevent cancer.”
American Lung Association Senior Vice President for Public Policy Paul Billings agrees that there’s not one chemical like tobacco that could be the focus of prevention efforts. But, he said, “If you really want to end cancer as we know it, we do need to deal with things like environmental exposures.”
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