WASHINGTON — Vice President Joe Biden’s cancer “moonshot” is in serious jeopardy following Donald Trump’s election, but there may be hope for it yet.
The president-elect hasn’t said anything about the initiative, launched by the Obama administration earlier this year, and his aides didn’t reply to multiple requests for comment. But the lame-duck Congress is making a last-ditch effort to pass a medical innovation bill that would provide hundreds of millions of dollars in funding for the effort.
And if that money is approved before Trump is inaugurated, there might not be anything the new president could do, even if he wanted to stop it.
“This is not all about Donald Trump,” Rush Holt, CEO of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, said at a recent briefing in Washington, discussing several medical research projects started under President Obama. “Programs once they’re started have an inertia.”
Supporters are putting their hopes in the lame-duck legislation for the same reason.
“If we can get the moonshot funded this year, there is a reasonable chance we could keep it going and maintain support for the moonshot moving forward,” said one health care lobbyist working to sustain the program.
The vice president, for his part, stressed the importance of the moonshot when he met privately with his successor, Indiana Governor Mike Pence, according to people familiar with the meeting.
Separately, Biden told STAT in an interview this fall that he hoped Trump would continue the moonshot if elected, given the bipartisan support it has received.
The moonshot has faced plenty of skeptics, but Trump’s election cast the first real doubts about whether it would continue at all. Medical researchers, like many others, had spent months assuming Hillary Clinton, who had pledged to support the moonshot, would be the next president.
“There’s more uncertainty today than we’ve had at any time over the past few months,” said Jon Retzlaff, managing director of science policy and government affairs at the American Association for Cancer Research.
The cancer initiative has been the focus of thousands of man-hours and much of Biden’s last year in office. But unless the funding is approved in the next few weeks, advocates say, the initiative faces an uncertain future under Trump’s incoming administration.
It comes down to dollars. For much of the research outlined by the moonshot’s blue-ribbon science panel to happen, with the goal of achieving 10 years of progress in five, new funding will be needed.
The Obama administration has asked for an additional $750 million to pay for programs under the initiative. Those efforts are complemented by commitments from private companies and institutions that don’t depend on federal funding.
The best hope for funding is the medical innovation bill currently working its way through Congress in the lame duck. The bill has the support of congressional leaders but has proved difficult to get across the finish line since work started on it two years ago. Biden has urged congressional leaders to approve moonshot funding since it was proposed.
The vice president has one important ally on Capitol Hill: Michigan Representative Fred Upton, who wants get the bill passed by the end of the year before he must step down from a key committee chairmanship.
“He’s been wonderfully engaged, he’s been very constructive,” Upton said of the vice president last week. “We all care about cancer.”
Upton said he’s optimistic about the bill’s chances, as he has been for months. But nothing is finalized yet, and the bill is being loaded with other provisions related to mental health and opioids that some lobbyists worry could complicate its passage.
If it does pass, the bill is expected to authorize billions of dollars in new National Institutes of Health funding — plus money for the moonshot that Obama requested at the beginning of the year.
Biden, who has said he’ll continue advocating for cancer research once he leaves office, and supporters are betting that the cancer moonshot is one area where Trump could be content to leave his predecessor’s legacy intact. The vice president has called it the last bipartisan issue in Washington.
Moonshot advocates are also watching to see whom Trump surrounds himself with.
Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich is expected to take some advisory role in the new administration, and he has been an avid supporter of NIH for decades. Trump met over the weekend with biotech mogul Dr. Patrick Soon-Shiong, who sat on the moonshot’s blue ribbon panel.
Like everybody else in the two weeks since Election Day, researchers are fighting for a seat at Trump’s table, believing that if they can make their case, the momentum for cancer research started by the moonshot will continue. They are trying to balance their fears with optimism.
“I am confident that when he hears the opportunities that exist today in cancer research, that he will get it,” Retzlaff said. “I think it’s just a matter of getting in the door.”