PHILADELPHIA – Joe Biden’s cancer moonshot is starting to take shape.
President Obama will soon order an executive action creating a task force, led by Biden and putting every agency in the federal government at his disposal, the vice president said Friday at the University of Pennsylvania. It was the first public event Biden has held since Obama announced a national commitment to end cancer in his State of the Union address and placed Biden in charge.
“We can change the life circumstances of millions of people around the world,” Biden said, pounding the table. He was joined by some of Penn Medicine’s leading cancer researchers in a small room at the school’s huge medical complex. “This is the place the United States can make a contribution that exceeds anything we’ve done so far for humanity.”
Biden emphasized that this was not some massive new federal program. Instead, he saw the task force’s role as figuring out how the government “can be partners, not impediments.”
But Biden also made it clear how much the effort means to him after the death of his son, Beau, from brain cancer last year. And he said his work on cancer isn’t going to end when he leaves office next January.
“My commitment is not for just the next 12 months,” he said. “I plan on doing this for the rest of my life.”
Friday’s event was the kickoff for Biden’s public work on the cancer effort. He’s also heading to Davos, Switzerland on Sunday to discuss the latest cancer research developments with international experts.
A major theme of the roundtable discussion that Biden led with a dozen researchers, which lasted more than an hour, was his desire to bridge gaps between different research institutions, as well as the pharmaceutical industry.
Researchers urged the vice president to press the drug companies to make their clinical trial data more readily available to others. They also want him to encourage them to allow their drugs to be used in combination with products from other companies in trials.
“That could be a huge contribution of this venture, to get that data out there,” said Dr. Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health, who sat beside Biden during the event.
The NIH, the Food and Drug Administration, and the Department of Defense are some of the agencies that Biden said would be crucial to the effort. On the data front, the National Cancer Institute expects to launch its Genomic Data Commons — a project to gather and distribute cancer genomics data — in the next six months, Dr. Douglas Lowy, NCI’s acting director, said during the meeting.
Biden spoke more than once about the need to sell the public on investments like fiberoptic cables that can carry the huge datasets that researchers say will help them make discoveries faster. One common refrain he said he heard when talking with people about big data was: “What the hell does that have to do with fighting cancer?”
As for treatment, the researchers spoke of the promise of immunotherapy, which uses the human immune system to fight cancer cells — including for glioblastoma, the cancer that took Beau’s life. In the audience was Emily Whitehead, a young girl who was cured of her leukemia by the therapy.
In the longer term, 10 years from now, the researchers said they hope to be able to create a cancer vaccine that would help prevent and stop the mutations that become cancer in the first place.
“You’re on the cusp of some phenomenal breakthroughs,” Biden said, calling it “an inflection point” for treatment, a favored phrase among researchers.
But the researchers acknowledged that they had a ways to go. Even the most promising therapies, they said, might work in only one-third of patients. The challenge now is to figure out how to make it work for everyone else. They’re still deciphering whom the therapy will help, how to combine it with standard treatments and how much of a dose to give.
Biden came to Penn three months after he first called for a moonshot to end the disease, a statement he made when he announced he would not run for president in 2016.
In the last few months, Biden has met with 200 researchers, advocates, and other figures involved in the cancer fight, according to his aides. He hasn’t gotten to the nitty-gritty of explaining exactly what he’ll do during his last year in office, but he has emphasized the need for greater investment in cancer research, and a cultural shift that encourages collaboration among scientists.
Researchers who met with the vice president’s staff last week said they lobbied for a national open-data initiative and for the federal government to spend more money on gene sequencing, saying those are obvious steps that could be taken in the short term.
Biden picked Penn for his first major public event after the State of the Union because of the school’s work on immunotherapy, according to his staff. Beau also earned his undergraduate degree here, as Biden pointed out during Friday’s event.
Dr. Carl June and other top researchers here have produced breakthroughs in treating advanced blood cancers with the therapy, and several faculty members have since started a pharmaceutical company to develop more.
In the days leading up to Biden’s visit, Penn researchers were clearly enthused by the tacit endorsement of the vice president, but also cognizant of the expectations it brings. Some in the field have criticized Biden and Obama for saying they want to “cure” or “end” cancer, and previous high-minded efforts haven’t produced the panacea that such rhetoric would suggest.
Biden acknowledged those concerns Friday, saying at one point that he almost wished he “hadn’t called it a moonshot.” But he argued that the potential is there for transformative progress — and he said he would dedicate the rest of his life to it.