Why healthcare needs a space race of its own

August 2, 1955. This day marked the start of a fascinating 20-year long game of one-upping each other between the United States of America and the Soviet Union—more commonly known as the space race. The competition rallied scientists, engineers, teachers, students and pretty much the entire country to work together towards one common goal: being the pioneer in spaceflight achievements. A combination of more than 25 billion dollars, 400 000 people and over 20 000 companies and universities ultimately culminated in the unprecedented lunar landing of mankind on July 20, 1969. In a mere 20 years, it showed a glimpse of the astonishing progress the human species can achieve when everyone puts their efforts towards one desire, one aspiration, one immense endeavour.

Let’s do it once more

Now more than 60 years later, the world is dealing with issues far more troubling, most notably in the medical world. The International Agency for Research on Cancer expects the number of new cancer cases per year to rise to 23.6 million by the year 2030. And based on 2013-2015 data, 4 out 10 men and women receive the horrifying diagnose at some point in their life. More than half a million people die of cancer in the US alone. All these alarming statistics and after 50 years of extensive research these numbers have yet do decline drastically. That’s why the world needs a moonshot for life—a space race against cancer.

One massive borderless mission, inspired by the Apollo 11 program. The world needs to declare war against these horrible illnesses. Curing cancer, preventing Alzheimer and stopping the AIDS pandemic. A major challenge, no doubt, but surely one the world can overcome.

How are we doing and what happened to Biden’s Cancer initiative?

The war on cancer has been going on for decades and the importance of the eradication of the illness hasn’t been overlooked. Nations around the world are increasingly concentrating their efforts into cancer research initiatives. The German Cancer Research Center has recently invested 280 million euro’s and the Netherlands Cancer Institute has put around 80 million euro’s towards the prevention of this horrible disease.

One notable organization that promised a similar moonshot against cancer was the Biden Cancer Initiative founded by Joe Biden, former vice president of the US. On May 30, 2015, Biden’s son Beau died at the age of only 46 after losing a hard-fought battle with brain cancer. Joe Biden himself later said America can cure cancer with a new moonshot. As a tribute to his late son, Biden then promised to fight cancer through the Biden Cancer Initiative.

Unfortunately, on July 15, 2019—two years after the start—the organization announced it would be suspending all operations indefinitely. In April, Biden and his wife had left the board of the initiative as an ethics precaution in the run-up of the 2020 presidential elections. Without the support and visibility of the Biden name, the organization’s growth came to a halt, until ultimately no longer being able to stay afloat.

Carlos Moedas and Harald zur Hausen, our astronauts in shining armor

With Biden’s Cancer Initiative out of the picture, we will have to look to others to step up and rally the world. Our hope is with the European Commissioner for Research, Science and Innovation, Carlos Moedas. On July 4, 2019 Moedas officially launched the work on five major European research and innovation missions that will be part of Horizon Europe, the next EU research and innovation program.

One of the five missions is focused on the battle against cancer. To head the mission, Moedas appointed no other than professor Harald zur Hausen, a visionary expert that has proven to be one of the world’s leading experts on the matter. Zur Hausen is widely known for being the researcher behind the discovery of the role of the papilloma viruses in the development of cervical cancer. For his incredible work, zur Hausen received the 2008 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine — you’ll be hard pressed to find someone better to lead this battle.

The fight against Alzheimer’s

Cancer is not the only illness that’s destroying lives at an alarming rate. Alzheimer’s disease is the 6th leading cause of death in the United States and every three seconds, someone in the world develops dementia. If breakthroughs are not discovered, the number of people with Alzheimer’s or other dementias could grow to an astonishing 152 million by 2050. Needless to say, we need a moonshot for Alzheimer’s too.

The problem with Alzheimer’s is the fact that it’s a neurological disorder and quite frankly, we don’t know that much about the human brain yet. To tackle that problem, the BRAIN Initiative was created. This research initiative was announced by the Obama administration in 2013 and has the goal of supporting and stimulating the development of innovative techniques and technology to better understand the way our brains work. That could very well be the only way we could ever hope to tackle this horrible disorder.