WASHINGTON — While Joe Biden surrendered his presidential ambitions on Wednesday, he also dedicated himself and his office to the fight against cancer for the remainder of his term.
Biden, whose oldest son Beau died in May of brain cancer at age 46, called for “a moon shot in this country to cure cancer” as he announced his decision not to run. He acknowledged that the issue was “personal” for him.
“I’m going to spend the next 15 months in this office pushing as hard as I can to accomplish this,” the vice president said from the White House Rose Garden, flanked by his wife Jill and President Barack Obama. “Because I know there are Democrats and Republicans on the Hill who share our passion, our passion to silence this deadly disease.”
“If I could have been anything, I would have wanted to be the president that ended cancer,” Biden added. “Because it’s possible.”
He cited the Obama administration’s efforts to boost cancer research funding. Obama’s most recent budget proposal would have increased funding for the National Institutes of Health by $1 billion.
Some of the specific initiatives in the president’s budget included $70 million for the National Cancer Institute’s gene-targeting research and a $70 million increase for the administration’s BRAIN initiative, focused on research into the inner workings of the human brain.
“There are so many breakthroughs just on the horizon in science and medicine, the things that are just about to happen,” Biden said. “And we can make them real with an absolute national commitment to end cancer as we know it today.”
The White House doesn’t set government spending, however; Congress does. The NIH’s cancer research funding has fluctuated, but stayed largely flat at around $5.4 billion since fiscal year 2011, according to the agency’s database.
As much as Biden and other political leaders like to talk about “ending” cancer — a theme that has been around since President Richard Nixon declared a “war on cancer” in the 1970s — researchers say it’s an unrealistic goal. They say it’s increasingly clear that cancer isn’t one disease, but many, and they work so differently that it’s unlikely that science will find one common path to kill them all.
Still, advocacy groups were quick to praise Biden’s comments and leverage them into more momentum for research money.
“Vice President Biden, like millions of people across the country, has experienced the terrible wrath of cancer on his family,” Chris Hansen, president of the American Cancer Society’s Cancer Action Network, said in a statement to Stat. “We join him in calling for a sustained national commitment to defeat a disease that will kill an estimated 590,000 people in America this year.”
The question, then, is whether Biden can use his time left as vice president to achieve any meaningful change.
“We strongly urge other elected officials and also candidates running for office to join Biden in this push to leverage the power of science and innovation in bringing us closer to a cure for cancer and other major health threats,” Mary Woolley, president and CEO of Research!America, said in a statement to Stat, adding that the vice president’s “passion for putting research to work to end cancer will stand as an important part of his legacy.”