Vice President Joe Biden encouraged the nation’s leading cancer researchers to collaborate more effectively and to share data, as well as provide him with direction, in efforts to accelerate ambitious cancer research goals.
“I really do believe we’re on the cusp of breakthroughs that will save lives and benefit all of humanity,” said Biden, to a room filled with researchers.“You’re one of the most valuable resources this country has. I’m not joking when I say this, your dedication absolutely awes me.”
On Wednesday, Biden delivered a speech to 19,000 attendees at the American Association for Cancer Research (AACR) annual meeting in New Orleans, to describe the Cancer Moonshot initiative’s developing plans and to encourage continued research.
Biden addressed the cancer research community, which included laboratory, translational, and clinical researchers; population scientists; healthcare professionals; and patient advocates. His remarks were also broadcast to a national and international audience via a live webcast.
“I’ve taken on some big assignments in my career,” said Biden. “But this is bigger, and I know so much less.”
The Cancer Moonshot initiative was announced in January, during President Barack Obama’s final State of the Union address. Biden’s team will work to increase cancer funding, and provide targeted incentives for the public and private sectors to combat the disease. He also plans on facilitating increased collaboration between cancer centers and technology firms to enable medical data sharing. The initiative aims to bring about a decade’s worth of cancer research advances in five years.
Eliminating barriers, fostering collaboration
Biden told the AACR crowd that he has made a commitment to break down any silos that affect the cancer research community, to help accelerate the progress the community is making. Curing cancer is one area that has unlimited bipartisan support, said Biden.
Why then, “does it take multiple submissions and perhaps more than a year to get an answer from us?” questioned Biden, as he addressed the difficulties of qualifying for federal grant money. “We slow down our best, young minds making them spend years and years in the lab before they get their own grants.”
Biden also addressed “cancer politics,” when he referenced hurdles to collaboration that are inhibiting research. Once a significant breakthrough becomes published in a journal, it can “sit behind the paywalls of journals,” he said.
The government is committed to realign its spending and cancer research incentives. “How can we move your ideas faster, together, in the interest of patients?” asked Biden.
“I believe we can design a new system that better supports your efforts and saves lives sooner.”
Biden said he also has a goal of ensuring data is more easily accessible for all researchers. The way the system is set up now, said Biden, researchers are not incentivized to share their data. “I ask a rhetorical question. Are we collaborating enough? What can we do? What can you do? You’re already doing so very much.”
Biden called upon those in the AACR audience, and the cancer research community at large, for their guidance in navigating a challenge this vast. “Sometimes, I find myself overwhelmed by it,” he said. “I need your help, honest evaluations about what changes can be made.
“There is more brain power in this room than exists in many countries. And we need you.”
Cancer Moonshot initiative details
Specifically, according to the White House website, the Cancer Moonshot initiative will support research opportunities for the following:
- Prevention and cancer vaccine development, such as with the vaccine for cervical cancer and other cancers caused by human papilloma virus (HPV)
- Early cancer detection. Recent advances in genomic and proteomic technologies have increased the sensitivity of methods to detect cancer biomarkers, so the National Institutes of Health (NIH) will invest in developing minimally invasive screening assays.
- Cancer immunotherapy and combination therapy. Immunotherapy has seen early success in harnessing the power of the body’s immune system to fight cancer. The initiative aims to extend this success to virtually all solid tumors, as well as develop and test new combination therapies.
- Genomic analysis of tumor and surrounding cells. Increased understanding of the genetic changes that happen within cancer cells will advance immunotherapy and targeted drug therapy.
- Enhanced data sharing. By breaking down barriers between institutions, including those in the public and private sectors, the cancer initiative aims to encourage the development of new tools.
Since the announcement of the Cancer Moonshot initiative, Biden has called for expediting drug combination approvals, during a January panel at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. There he said he’d recently met with the head of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and three unnamed large drug companies, in which both sides agreed to do more to rapidly approve drug combinations.
Although immunotherapies have shown considerable promise in using the body’s natural defenses to fend off cancer, getting these treatments to market can be slow and costly — at times, reaching upwards of $100,000 a year per patient.
Biden told the crowd at the Davos gathering, “My job…is to educate the public in very simple language why I’m going to ask so much more of them — a lot more money, a lot more tax dollars, a lot more cooperation.”
In February, the White House proposed spending close to $1 billion over the next two years on the Cancer Moonshot initiative. The White House will request $755 million in cancer-research funding from Congress in fiscal year 2017, and is planning to spend $195 million this year. The NIH will be the main recipient of this funding for medical research.
Yet, Obama’s call to “make America the country that cures cancer once and for all” in the State of the Union address has led to criticisms from scientists that the strategy presents an ‘over-simplified’ approach to a complex issue.
In early April, the National Cancer Institute (NCI), part of the NIH, announced a Blue Ribbon Panel of scientific experts, cancer leaders, and patient advocates. This panel will direct the goals at NCI of the Cancer Moonshot initiative, and will provide scientific guidance from leaders in the cancer community. “[This panel] will ensure that, as NIH allocates new resources through the Moonshot, decisions will be grounded in the best science,” said Biden, in an NIH release.
Later this month, on April 28, Biden will visit the Vatican to address the Cancer Moonshot initiative at a conference on the progress of regenerative medicine. There he will speak to attendees of the event, which is organized by the Stem for Life Foundation and the Vatican’s Pontifical Council for Culture.
Said Biden at the AACR meeting, “This is personal for [Jill and myself], but it’s also bigger than us. It affects millions of people around the world every day.” Biden’s oldest son, former state attorney general of Delaware, Beau Biden lost his battle with brain cancer last year.
In 2016, more than 1.6 million new cases of cancer will be diagnosed and nearly 600,000 people will die from cancer in the U.S., according to the American Cancer Society.
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