WASHINGTON — Vice President Joe Biden personally lobbied for a major increase in cancer research funding in the government spending bill that Congress passed on Friday, effectively kickstarting his promise to pursue a “moonshot” to end cancer for the rest of his term and beyond.
The spending bill, which will raise funding for the National Institutes of Health by $2 billion, includes a $264 million boost specifically for the National Cancer Institute — the biggest increase for the institute in more than a decade.
Biden spoke multiple times with Senator Roy Blunt of Missouri, a Republican who heads the Senate Appropriations panel that oversees funding for the NIH, to advocate for the increase, an aide to the vice president told STAT. They talked on the phone and discussed the issue in person.
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Biden’s senior staff also worked with their counterparts on the appropriations committees and in congressional leadership on the funding increase, the aide said.
The vice president “is deeply committed to a moonshot to end cancer, and sees the increased funding for NIH as an important first step with Congress,” the aide said.
Biden has also been meeting with oncologists, medical researchers, and hospital administrators since his October remarks to discuss the best path forward, his aide said. He hasn’t publicly outlined a strategy for pursuing his “moonshot” goal, but getting new funding for research is one of the first tangible steps toward it.
Biden apparently found willing partners in Blunt and Representative Tom Cole of Oklahoma, who chairs the House subcommittee that shares responsibility for NIH funding. A Blunt aide confirmed the conversations, but noted that that the senator had already started working on a funding boost prior to the talks with Biden.
It might not be a one-time increase either, as Cole told STAT in an interview before the spending bill was released.
“One of my goals would be … not just to have a good year, but how are we going to increase it again next year?” Cole said. “Because I want to build on what we’ve done.”
Cancer advocates praised the new funding in the bill, which cleared the House and Senate with relative ease on Friday.
“Years of static funding have stifled innovation and forced researchers to abandon promising projects,” Chris Hansen, president of the American Cancer Society’s lobbying arm, said in a statement. “This long-overdue funding boost would begin to restore resources that are critical to the development of early detection tests and cutting-edge therapies.”
The funding boost comes two months after Biden, in announcing that he would not run for president, called for a “moonshot” to cure cancer. His eldest son, Beau, died of brain cancer in May.
“There are so many breakthroughs just on the horizon in science and medicine, the things that are just about to happen,” Biden said in the Rose Garden, with his wife, Jill, and President Obama at his side. “And we can make them real with an absolute national commitment to end cancer as we know it today.”
The trick will be turning rhetoric and new funding into action. As STAT reported last month, medical experts caution that goals like a “cure” or “end” for cancer might be unrealistic. Instead, incremental but steady progress is considered the best way to think about advancing medicine for cancer and other troublesome diseases.