WASHINGTON — Vice President Joe Biden is looking for ideas for his cancer “moonshot” initiative that would have the quickest possible payoff, according to leading researchers who met with his staff on Friday.
The questions the cancer researchers got from Biden’s aides suggest that they realize big, breakthrough cancer treatment discoveries could take years — so they’re putting their immediate focus on smaller initiatives that they can actually get done during his final year in office.
The researchers suggested two possible quick-payoff initiatives: a data-sharing program that would allow researchers to compare notes on how tumors respond to different therapies, and a federal investment to make new progress in gene sequencing.
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Top Biden policy staffers met for 80 minutes in the vice president’s office with scientists from the American Association for Cancer Research. One clear takeaway was that the vice president’s staff is looking for something concrete they can do in Biden’s final year, Dr. José Baselga, the president of the organization and chief medical officer at the Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center’s Memorial Hospital in New York, told STAT.
A big part of their message, according to Baselga, was: “Let’s leave aside discovery for a second … This vice president has a year left. What could be done that could be impactful?”
“They are on a time crunch,” Baselga said. “They know that there is one year left of his administration. They had a sense of urgency.”
A Biden aide declined to talk about the specifics of the meeting, but said the vice president was “using his ability to convene to bring together components of the cancer community, and sees great promise in genomics, immunotherapy, and combined therapies.”
One idea that both sides floated during the meeting, which ran 20 minutes longer than planned, was the national open-access data-sharing initiative for scientists and institutions. Biden’s staff was “incredibly interested” in the idea, according to Baselga.
“I think we all concluded that perhaps what would benefit the field the most is to build [the] open-access data-sharing initiative,” he said. “We could learn collectively how these tumors behave, what kind of therapies they respond to.”
The researchers also told Biden’s aides that they believed the federal government should pay for the next generation of gene sequencing, which could help develop personalized treatments for cancer patients.
“These are the things that are feasible,” Baselga said. “They can be done. They would be very impactful.”
Biden’s staff was “asking concrete questions,” he said, on how a data platform would be structured and funded.
But beyond the minutiae, Biden’s aides were also clearly interested in having the vice president play an aspirational role in the fight against cancer.
In May, Biden’s son Beau Biden died of brain cancer at the age of 46.
They wanted to know how they could “use the power of both [the vice president’s] personality, as well as the power of what he and his family have been through, as well as the office to move things forward,” according to Dr. George Demetri of the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, who also attended the meeting.
They were interested in “how we can break down silos,” Demetri said, with the data initiative idea being one tangible way to pursue that goal.
“I think most of us came away feeling really energized,” he added.
Biden’s “moonshot” initiative started with his statement in October, in announcing that he would not run for president, that he wanted the country to pursue a “moonshot” to cure cancer. According to a Biden aide, the vice president and his staff have held dozens of meetings like Friday’s to gather input about how to improve cancer care and research.