A billionaire medical entrepreneur has pulled together several drugmakers and Philadelphia-based Independence Blue Cross to speed development of what researchers hope could be a powerful weapon against cancers - potent combinations of new drugs that harness the body's immune system.
So-called immunotherapies help disease-fighting cells attack tumors. Yet researchers believe they may work best when two, three, or more of the drugs are used together - overwhelming a tumor's cellular defenses with attacks from all sides.
The group - called the National Immunotherapy Coalition - brought together by Patrick Soon-Shiong calls itself Moon Shot 2020. The name spun out of conversations Soon-Shiong had last year with Vice President Biden, whose son Beau died of cancer in May. In his October announcement that he was not running for president, Biden suggested a project of moon-shot proportions would be needed to defeat cancer.
A controversial figure in oncology research circles because of his self-promotion, Soon-Shiong made his fortune by inventing the cancer drug Abraxane in the early 1990s. California-based Amgen and New Jersey-based Celgene have joined the effort. Early reports suggested Pfizer, Merck, and GlaxoSmithKline might participate, but other reports indicated they had not as of Monday.
Independence Blue Cross said in a statement Monday that it entered into an agreement with NantHealth, one of Soon-Shiong's companies, to cover next-generation whole genome sequencing, which is a test designed to detect gene mutations that may serve as markers to help doctors choose cancer treatment.
Independence said its agreement with NantHealth involves a "very specific and complex lab study" related to certain types of cancer. The test will be covered for members with "specific conditions including rare cancers, tumors in children, metastatic cancer of unknown primary, primary brain cancer, triple negative breast cancer, and metastatic cancer where conventional therapies have been exhausted and patients remain candidates for further therapy. Coverage for the testing will be available to eligible members of Independence commercial plans in March 2016."
As for the National Immunotherapy Coalition, Independence said members referred by their oncologist for participation in one of the approved Moon Shot 2020 clinical trials will be eligible for coverage for the routine patient care costs related to the trial. The coverage includes all routine services required for the patient - such as blood tests, supportive medications, and surgical interventions.
"Independence Blue Cross is committed to bringing state-of-the-art advances in oncology to our members and making care accessible and affordable," Daniel J. Hilferty, president and CEO, Independence Blue Cross, said in the statement. "Decisions around cancer care are complex and personal. We're focused on supporting Independence members and their oncologists by offering coverage for this innovative approach to treating cancer. Whole genome sequencing is one more option to help inform a personalized, effective treatment plan."