The 21st Century Cures Act: One step forward for medical progress


Brian Wu, PhD

Essential Insights contributor, healthcare writer


The 21st Century Cures Act (Cures Act), signed into law in December 2016, is a nearly 1,000 page sweeping piece of healthcare legislation designed to bring new treatments and cures to patients faster. This rare bipartisan effort is broad in scope and aims to improve the discovery, development and delivery of breakthrough treatments and cures for a variety of diseases and conditions.

Here is a brief summary of some notable ways diseases and conditions are addressed in the Cures Act:


Cancer, in all its forms, is the second leading cause of death in America. The Cures Act aims to help develop cancer treatments by providing new funding in the amount of $1.5 billion for the Precision Medicine Initiative (PMI ) and $1.8 billion for the “Cancer Moonshot.” The PMI is an initiative involving the National Cancer Institute and other federal agencies. It is designed to revolutionize the way we treat disease through the use of precision medicine and advances in biology and genetics. The Cancer Moonshot , meanwhile, is focused on accelerating cancer research, improving cancer detection, and increasing the accessibility of treatments to patients across the country.

Neurological disorders

Neurological disorders such as Alzheimer's and Parkinson's disease negatively impact millions of American families. The Cures Act intends to help find new and innovative treatments for these and other neurological conditions through its funding of the BRAIN Initiative,  developed by the National Institutes of Health (NIH). Research from this initiative will increase the understanding of the structure and function of the brain and show, for the first time, how brain cells and nerve circuits interact. This new knowledge, scientists believe, will help lead to new disease treatments.

Rare diseases


Percentage of the 7,000 rare diseases that have no treatment and are considered to be life-threatening or life-limiting.
For many patient advocates, one of the most exciting parts of the Cures Act is the funding to extend the Rare Pediatric Disease Primary Voucher Program, which the U.S. Food & Drug Administration can use to award priority review vouchers to sponsors of rare pediatric disease product applications that meet certain criteria. The National Organization for Rare Diseases reports that there are about 7,000 rare diseases in the medical books, and they affect around 1 in 10 Americans, more than 50 percent of whom are children. Currently, more than 95 percent of these rare diseases have no treatment and are considered to be life-threatening or life-limiting.

Mental health

Limitations of the mental healthcare system in this country have been part of an ongoing national conversation. The Cures Act addresses many of these limitations and includes provisions that promote access to mental healthcare. It incorporates parts of the Mental Health Reform Act of 2016 and the Helping Families in Mental Health Crisis Act of 2016 and mandates the formation of a committee to provide ongoing assessment research related to the prevention, diagnosis, intervention in and treatment of mental health conditions. It also includes provisions to help enforce mental health parity laws and implement early intervention programs.

A deeper dive into the Cures Act

A web page from the U.S. House of Representative’s Energy and Commerce Committee with more helpful Cures Act information and resources.

The Cures Act helps bring our healthcare innovation infrastructure into the 21st Century and pave the way for more breakthrough treatments and cures. President Trump’s administration is in the process of implementing the Cures Act and more announcements about its implementation are expected later in 2017.

However, we must continue to push medical progress forward in both the public and private sectors. Biomedical research of diseases that represent more than 80 percent of all U.S. deaths receives less than half of its funding from the NIH, according to 2015 research from the University of Rochester Medical Center that appeared in the Journal of the American Medical Association. The authors also found that the allocation of research resources does not reflect the burden of disease on society.

“Medical innovation offers many life-saving and economic benefits,” says Cardinal Health Chief Medical Officer Shaden Marzouk. “The 21st Century Cures Act is a much-needed step forward for medical progress, but we must maintain and strengthen our collective commitment to the necessary work of discovering, developing and delivering new treatments and cures in our rapidly-changing healthcare landscape.”