Queen Letitia of Spain and Dr. Jill Biden at Columbia University Irving Medical Center

Conversation with Anil K. Rustgi, MD, on Visit by Jill Biden and Queen of Spain

As part of the Biden Administration's Cancer Moonshot initiative, First Lady Jill Biden and Queen Letizia of Spain, Honorary President of the Spanish Association Against Cancer, visited Columbia University Irving Medical Center to learn how the University’s cancer center serves patients in the local community, collaborates with international partners on cancer research, and is working to improve the diversity of cancer researchers.

The Cancer Moonshot initiative was launched in 2016 and reignited early in 2022 with new goals of reducing the cancer death rate by half within 25 years and improving the lives of people with cancer and cancer survivors.

We spoke with Anil K. Rustgi, MD, director of Columbia University’s Herbert Irving Comprehensive Cancer Center and professor of medicine at Columbia University Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons, about the visit and the initiative’s goals.

Pres. Biden recently announced new goals for the Cancer Moonshot effort. What does this mean generally for cancer care?

The Cancer Moonshot Initiative changed the landscape of cancer research and care. Since the White House first launched the Cancer Moonshot in 2016, we’ve witnessed so much progress in therapy discovery and improved individualized patient care. Now with the reinvigoration of the Cancer Moonshot, we are more energized than ever to work toward a cure and to address the pressing challenges we face in cancer today, including community outreach and engagement as well as equity and inclusion in clinical trials. This will no doubt improve our national efforts in cancer screening, surveillance, early detection, prevention, risk stratification, therapy, and survivorship.

The Cancer Center is celebrating its 50th year since receiving NCI designation. What progress has been made in the last 50 years, and what are the biggest priorities for the next 50?

Just last week we held a special symposium celebrating and marking our 50th anniversary of National Cancer Institute designation. The advances we’ve made through the decades have allowed us to better prevent, detect, and treat cancer. We’re focused on leveraging newer technologies and computational methods to better understand how cancer begins and evolves, and we’re also looking into new strategies and approaches to stop cancer before it even starts. We aim to continue this forward momentum and continue to translate discovery cancer science into innovative clinical trials and comprehensive cancer care. Equally important is our effort in community outreach and engagement, in diversity, equity and inclusion and in training and educating the future generation of scientists and physicians.

Our commitment to our patients, caregivers, and the communities in which they reside is of paramount importance and our north star.

Dr. Jill Biden, Queen Letizia meeting a Columbia Cancer patient

First Lady Jill Biden and Queen Letizia of Spain visited Columbia University Irving Medical Center to highlight Columbia Cancer's work in addressing health inequities, improving diversity in clinical trials, and advancing critical cancer research. From left: Jill Biden, Queen Letizia, Columbia oncologist Andrew Lassman, nurse navigator Brianne Bodin, patient Mario Sambula, and Anil K. Rustgi, director of the Herbert Irving Comprehensive Cancer Center. Read more. Photo: Eileen Barroso / Columbia University.

Can you help set expectations for what is to come from this Cancer Moonshot?

The Biden Administration has set the goal to reduce the death rate from cancer by at least 50% over the next 25 years and improve the experience of people and their families living with and surviving cancer. We share the same goals and commitment to end cancer for all.

The development of blood tests to detect cancer at its earliest stages is a key initiative of the Cancer Moonshot. Is this something Columbia researchers are working on?

Yes, Columbia scientists and physicians, along with trainees and staff, are working on ways to improve early detection of cancers in high-risk groups (e.g. hereditary cancers) and average-risk groups. Early detection and prevention is more than just blood tests—our community outreach and engagement office, for example, works within our communities to increase access to education and works to remove access barriers to cancer prevention, screening, treatment, and survivorship services.

Our colleagues at the Mailman School of Public Health also are engaging in research on this topic, including how our environment affects our risk for cancer and research that goes beyond traditional strategies of cancer risk reduction, spanning genetics for prevention, racial inequities in cancer, and social and environmental determinants of health.