Dr. Califf speaks at 2016 MRA Scientific Retreat

The Eighth Melanoma Research Alliance Scientific Retreat was held in Washington D.C. this week, and one of the biggest moments was only tangentially related to melanoma.

On Tuesday, the U.S. Senate confirmed Dr. Robert Califf as the new commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration, ending several weeks of legislative debate.  Just in time, it turns out, for the new commissioner to keep a commitment to the MRA.  Dr. Califf was sworn in by President Obama on Thursday afternoon – and promptly went crosstown to deliver the closing remarks on Day 1 of the Retreat.  “Speaking to this group of melanoma researchers”, Dr. Califf stated, “is my first official act as the commissioner of the FDA”.

The reason for the delay in Senate approval was the perception by a handful of lawmakers that Dr. Califf’s relationship with the pharmaceutical industry would not address the growing dependence on and abuse of opioids by millions of Americans.  I’ll save that discussion for the Politics section, but safe to say, Dr. Califf – a renown cardiologist and researcher from Duke University – is overwhelmingly qualified.  Anyone who can get 89 Senators to agree on ANYTHING (much less a major political appointment, in an election year) will be able to handle the minefield that is Washington D.C.

FDA Commissioner Califf spoke about breaking down the research data silos that exist; very appropriate, considering the underlying mechanism behind the MRA’s mission is to push collaboration among researchers. That presentation of data is the entire reason for this scientific retreat, and the MRA/FasterCures model of “fund promising medical research and insist the findings are shared”.  Recalling a meeting with Vice President Joe Biden, Dr. Califf recounted how Vice President Biden was “in a state of shock at how much information was hoarded, as he brought his son Beau from one cancer center to another, looking for treatment for his son’s Glioblastoma.”

Related, the cancer moonshot that Vice President Biden launched last month at Penn will contain a part very relevant to the efforts of the MRA and the researchers gathered here.  Dr. Califf noted one goal is to gather medical data for one million patients to get the full picture of overall health of a population.  That data can be used to better understand the genomics of cancer and help identify the treatments, and combinations, that would best suite each person. 

He also dismissed the notion that there would be an impossible challenge to enroll such a huge cohort.  “Patients are willing to share their health information – on one condition.” Dr. Califf said.  “They are saying, ‘Please share with us what you are learning’.”  Certainly not all patients will opt-in to the program, for various reasons.  With 14.5 million people alive in 2014 having a history of cancer, there will be significant interest in just that subset of Americans to further medical research.  

Share findings.  Foster collaboration. Further research.  Make breakthroughs.  Find a cure.  The rising tide lifts all boats. As the Melanoma Research Alliance, FasterCures, and the Milken Institute have pioneered, progress is advanced – significantly – with the confluence of the many stakeholders and their involvement.  As a new page is turned in FDA leadership, here is hoping the advances in treatments being presented here are matched by advances in collaboration.

T.J. Sharpe shares his fight against Stage 4 Melanoma in the Patient #1 blog. Read more »