Joe Biden sees cancer silos starting to come down. But many are still standing.
In his travels across the world since the White House announced a cancer “moonshot” initiative, the vice president said world leaders are constantly asking him what they can do to help. Leading researchers are talking about how they can better share data and work together.
But as Biden spoke to the American Association for Cancer Research Wednesday, he said that too many barriers remain to reach the ambitious goals for cancer research that he and President Obama have laid out this year.
“I ask you a rhetorical question,” Biden told the group at its meeting in New Orleans as he closed his speech. “Are we collaborating enough? What can you do? What can we do?”
Breaking down silos — as he has often put it on his road tour since the cancer initiative was announced in President Obama’s State of the Union address — has been a regular theme for the vice president. By that, he means encouraging researchers to collaborate and corralling disparate interests in government, academia, and the private sector.
Facing a crowd of those very researchers, Biden hit that theme hard on Wednesday.
He ticked through all the world leaders he’s met with since the cancer moonshot started. Even in meetings that have nothing to do with medicine, such as a discussion in the United Arab Emirates about the Islamic State, officials have asked him about cancer, he said. It came up again during a recent meeting with 50 heads of state at the White House and when Biden recently visited Israel. Other leaders have asked if they can enter an agreement with the United States to work together on cancer.
There are also projects underway — like AACR’s Project GENIE and the ORIEN network, among others — that aim to pool data and other resources among different research institutions with the hope of identifying patterns in cancer and treatments sooner.
But Biden noted an irony there.
“Quite frankly … when I met with all the heads of each of those groups, it raises the question for me: Why is all of this being done separately?” he said. “Why is so much money being spent when, if it’s aggregated, everyone acknowledges the answers would come more quickly?”
The Obama administration’s stated goal is making a decade’s worth of progress in cancer research in the next five years.
Biden admitted that the current model for research — how grants are awarded, how institutions evaluate their researchers — doesn’t necessarily reward that kind of collaboration.
“The way the system now is set up, researchers are not incentivized to share their data,” he said. “Too often grants are given for what you’ve already done rather than what you are doing. … The more outside the box, which may be the answer to some cancers, the less likely you are to get funded.”
The vice president didn’t unveil any new specifics, but he said that fixing that model would be a focus for his cancer task force. He said that researchers should be evaluated based on patient outcomes, not publications, and that data should be more readily available once published. There isn’t much grant money right now in verifying other published research, even if such verification is important, he said.
Biden also rebuffed those who have questioned the usefulness of sharing data — namely a New England Journal of Medicine editorial that worried data sharing could breed data “parasites.” (The journal later softened that statement.)
“But every expert I’ve spoken to says we need to share this data in order to move this progress more rapidly,” Biden said.
Those hurdles to collaboration are part of what Biden has come to call “cancer politics” — the competing and conflicting interests that he says are inhibiting research.
It is an issue that those in the field are well aware of.
“Probably like many fields, the metrics for advancement will always start with, ‘What have you accomplished?’” Dr. Levi Garraway, a member of the moonshot advisory panel and a researcher at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, told STAT recently. “Lots of people are willing to collaborate in principle, but they don’t want to collaborate to the point where they don’t get credit.”
Likely with that in mind, Biden on Wednesday warned: “This is not the system that will get us to our goals faster.”