WASHINGTON — President Obama gave a big political boost to Vice President Joe Biden’s proposed “moonshot” effort to end cancer Tuesday night, saying he would put Biden “in charge of mission control” for a new initiative to wipe out the disease.
In his State of the Union address, Obama announced a “national effort” to find innovative new treatments for cancer, noting that Biden has already helped to press Congress to provide more funding for research.
“Last year, Vice President Biden said that with a new moonshot, America can cure cancer,” Obama said. “Tonight, I’m announcing a new national effort to get it done. And because he’s gone to the mat for all of us, on so many issues over the past 40 years, I’m putting Joe in charge of Mission Control.”
“For the loved ones we’ve all lost, for the family we can still save, let’s make America the country that cures cancer once and for all,” Obama said.
Biden, who lost his son Beau to brain cancer last year, smiled sadly as Obama spoke.
In a Medium post, Biden said his effort will have two goals: to increase funding for cancer research and to “break down silos” so researchers can work together and “end cancer as we know it.”
The vice president said he will visit the Abramson Cancer Center at the University of Pennsylvania’s Perelman School of Medicine on Friday to talk to leading physicians about the effort, and will talk with international cancer experts at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, next week.
“This is our moonshot,” Biden wrote in the post. “I know that we can help solidify a genuine global commitment to end cancer as we know it today — and inspire a new generation of scientists to pursue new discoveries and the bounds of human endeavor.”
Obama also said he would ask Congress to fund a new effort to wipe out malaria.
“When we help African countries feed their people and care for the sick, that prevents the next pandemic from reaching our shores,” Obama said. “Right now, we are on track to end the scourge of HIV/AIDS, and we have the capacity to accomplish the same thing with malaria — something I’ll be pushing this Congress to fund this year.”
The cancer initiative received only a brief mention in the speech, but Obama’s decision to include it showed that he’s throwing the full weight of his office behind Biden’s effort to speed up research to find new cancer treatments. Biden has said the cause is “personal” to him, following the tragic death of his son.
Obama’s backing is especially critical for advocacy groups that want to see another boost for cancer research funding in Obama’s final budget proposal, scheduled to be released Feb. 9. Biden worked behind the scenes to help secure a $264 million funding boost for the National Cancer Institute in the government spending bill passed by Congress in December.
Advocates for cancer patients, not surprisingly, were thrilled by the announcement.
“As Vice President Biden understands acutely, everyone is one degree from cancer — whether they know someone who has been diagnosed or have been diagnosed themselves,” said Chris Hansen, president of the American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network. “His leadership and passion are promising and provide hope for the nearly 1.7 million who will be diagnosed with cancer in America this year that we can cure cancer once and for all.”
Politicians have been pledging to defeat cancer for decades, but newly developed therapies that boost the immune system to help fight the disease are giving some leading cancer researchers optimism about the potential for progress.
“Unleashing the immune system on many types of cancer will be a key development in this golden era of cancer research and care,” said Dr. Ronald DePinho, president of the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center, which has its own Moon Shots program that is trying to make significant advances in treating 12 kinds of cancer.
DePinho said MD Anderson is “grateful Vice President Joe Biden has inspired our leaders to launch a national cancer moonshot,” adding that “all efforts in our collective fight to end cancer are essential.”
Biden proposed the effort last year when he announced he wasn’t going to run for president, declaring that “if I could have been anything, I would have wanted to be the president that ended cancer.”
In the months since, Biden and his staff have held dozens of meetings to solicit input on what to do, according to aides.
Cancer researchers who met with aides last week told STAT that Biden’s staff seemed focused on finding ways to identify concrete proposals they could implement during Biden’s last year in office. Ideas that have been floated include a national clinical data-sharing initiative and a bigger federal investment in gene sequencing.
“They are on a time crunch,” Dr. José Baselga, the president of the American Association for Cancer Research, said after the meeting. “They know that there is one year left of his administration. They had a sense of urgency.”