Vice President Joe Biden, who lost his son Beau to brain cancer a year ago, is spearheading a wave of renewed interest – and investment – in cutting-edge cancer research.
Biden Announces Cancer “Moonshot”
Biden isn’t interested in refining traditional treatment methods, like chemo and radiotherapy, but in making “quantum leaps.” Completely new techniques like genomics, which looks at the minute genetic alterations that give rise to cancerous cells, are high on the Democratic politician’s list, and he’s leveraging the legacy of President John F. Kennedy by calling for a “moonshot” in radical therapies.
For Biden, curing cancer is a distinctly American challenge. In his last State of the Union, President Obama framed the pursuit of cures as a “national effort,” and commended Biden for his work to secure the National Institutes of Health a $32 billion budget for 2016. That’s 6% more than the agency’s funding in 2015, and the most the NIH has received in a decade. In more recent comments, Biden’s suggested that his “moonshot” will require cooperation between multiple government agencies, not just the NIH.
First Steps Toward Cure?
Over the last few months, Biden says he’s spoken with “nearly 200 of the world’s top cancer physicians, researchers and philanthropists.” He’s set to establish a task force of experts, but few details about the initiative’s actual plan have been made public. The Vice President has highlighted one problem currently crippling research into new cancer treatments, something we can assume he’s set his mind to changing: the segregation of specialties. “The science, data, and research results are trapped in silos, preventing faster progress and greater reach to patients,” he wrote in a post on the World Economic Forum‘s blog. Biden wants to break down the barriers standing between researchers working in different fields, as well as those that prevent philanthropists from finding and investing in new ideas.
Federal funding for research will be increased in 2016, and Biden’s committed himself to “incentivizing” private investments in the field, too. Little is known about how the Vice President intends to do that.
Leveraging big data seems to be a key tenet of Biden’s program, and it’s likely he’ll turn to “data and technology innovators” like Facebook and Google to do that. Those companies, it should be noted, have been apprehensive to work with the White House on combating terrorism, but it’s likely that an initiative with widespread bipartisan appeal, like curing cancer, won’t garner as much push-back. While it’s received criticism from civil rights advocates, personalized genetic sequencing will be a major focus of Biden’s campaign. He’ll need support from tech giants to do it.
Two “Moonshots” – One Public & One Private
Biden’s push for cures isn’t the first “moonshot” announced in 2016. On January 12, a coalition of pharmaceutical and biotech companies, along with leading academic researchers like Johns Hopkins, announced “The Moonshot For Cancer 2020,” an initiative devoted to speeding radical treatments through clinical trials to approval. Independence Blue Cross has already committed to offering insurance coverage for genomic tests used to monitor patients receiving new immunotherapy treatments.
That’s the major focus for Patrick Soon-Shiong, the biotech CEO leading Moonshot For Cancer 2020: recruiting immune system response to more advantage. Biden’s hot on immunotherapy, too, pegging the University of Pennsylvania, where immunotherapy had its start, as the formal starting point for his new initiative. But there’s lots of daylight between the two “moonshots,” one public and the other private. Soon-Shiong has even felt shade from within his own coalition, with Johns Hopkins’ William Nelson telling Fast Company: “[Soon-Shiong has] gotten rich, and I’m glad he did, but that’s not our goal.”
The National Institutes of Health is also trying to distance itself from the efforts of private organizations. After Soon-Shiong’s “moonshot” was announced, Francis Collins, director of the NIH said: “maybe the term moonshot has been utilized by a lot of people over time. Make no mistake, what the Vice President announced is not the same thing.”
In Philadelphia, Biden Criticizes “Cancer Politics”
Both programs agree, however, on the path research should take: reduce the use of chemotherapy, while exploring opportunities in immunotherapy and gene sequencing. At his meeting in Philadelphia, Biden hit those same notes, consulting with cancer researchers at the University of Pennsylvania’s Abramson Cancer Center.
Biden even let some details of his initiative slip, referencing a $20 billion investment in big data he’s asked for. The money, he suggested, would go toward laying “miles” of fiber-optic cables and increasing digital storage capabilities, keys both to exploiting the possibilities inherent in personalized gene sequencing and improving communication between researchers. But scientists aren’t just separated by distance, Biden noted, pointing an accusatory finger at what he called “cancer politics,” the unintentional – but deterrent – tendency of researchers to hold their findings close to the chest, rather than sharing it.
Expecting a press conference, reporters “essentially [sat] in on Biden listening to what doctors had to tell him about cancer research” instead, wrote Philadelphia Magazine‘s Dan McQuade. That’s a welcome message to send, since listening to doctors, not groveling for publicity, is what will ultimately cure cancer.