WASHINGTON — Vice President Joe Biden asked leading cancer researchers Tuesday to help him get up to speed on what it would take to make major progress so he can make the public case for an expensive effort against the disease.
In Davos, Switzerland, at the World Economic Forum Tuesday attended by top federal officials and scientists, Biden emphasized that he saw his job as educating the public about what needs to be done.
“My job … is to educate the public in very simple language why I’m going to ask so much more of them — a lot more money, a lot more tax dollars, a lot more cooperation,” he said.
In turn, he asked the researchers to be available to him in the coming months. Biden has already met with 200 people since October, when he first called for a national commitment to end cancer, according to his aides.
Biden’s role as a public spokesman for the effort has been an emerging theme at his public forums, including his roundtable discussion Friday at the University of Pennsylvania, his first event since President Barack Obama announced the moonshot in his State of the Union address.
He has been passionately committed to the cancer fight ever since he lost his son, Beau, to brain cancer last year. But on Tuesday, he insisted the effort is about more than that, after Bill McDermott, CEO of SAP, a leading software company, offered his condolences for Beau’s death.
“I don’t mean to make this personal about my son. It’s way beyond my son,” Biden told McDermott, according to a pool report distributed by the White House.
Biden is also showing an interest in how to share data on cancer patients and treatments more effectively. It’s expected to be a focus for the vice president, who has said he would oversee a federal task force that Obama is expected to create soon via executive action.
At Penn Medicine last week, Biden zeroed in particularly on the need to build a data infrastructure that could realize the potential that many scientists see in Big Data to speed medical progress and the difficulties in making that case.
On Tuesday in Davos, Biden asked pointed questions about the privacy concerns that some have raised about data-sharing.
While researchers see great potential in data repositories that could help doctors and patients stay abreast of the latest promising treatments and help researchers take advantage of the work being done by their peers across the country, privacy concerns could be a big hurdle. Doctors and scientists have strict obligations to patient privacy under the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act.
“I do think there is a path” to resolving the issues, “but that is the issue that gets raised,” said US Health and Human Secretary Sylvia Mathews Burwell during the forum.
McDermott said it should be possible to “totally anonymize the data.” Biden asked the attendees to be willing to get together in a room soon to hash out a plan to address those concerns.
The cancer researchers who joined Biden in Davos included Jennifer Doudna of the University of California, Berkeley, MIT’s Paula Hammond, Elizabeth Blackburn of the Salk Institute of Biological Sciences, David Agus of the University of Southern California’s Norris Westside Cancer Center, Charles Sawyers of Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, José Baselga of Memorial Sloan Kettering, and Toby Cosgrove of the Cleveland Clinic, according to the pool report.