Perspective from Brian Bolwell, MD
January 13, 2016
6 min read
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Biden to lead effort to expedite cancer research, find a cure

Perspective from Brian Bolwell, MD
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As part of his State of the Union address, President Barack Obama announced the launch of a national initiative to cure cancer that will be led by Vice President Joe Biden.

In October, Biden called for a “moonshot” to cure cancer in the wake of losing his son Beau Biden, who died of brain cancer last summer.

“Last month, [Biden] worked with this congress to give scientists at the National Institutes of Health the strongest resources they’ve had in over a decade,” Obama said during the address. “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 added.

‘Moonshot’ to cure cancer

Although specific details of the initiative were not provided in the address, Biden will officially launch the effort on Friday when he visits the Abramson Cancer Center at University of Pennsylvania’s Perelman School of Medicine.

“The goal of this initiative — this ‘moonshot’ — is to seize the moment,” Biden said in a statement released following the State of the Union. The goal is “to accelerate our efforts to progress toward a cure and to unleash new discoveries and breakthroughs for other deadly diseases,” he added.

Biden said he will spend the next year — his final as vice president — leading a collaborative effort involving government, industry, researchers, clinicians, patients and philanthropists to target investment, coordinate research across different fields and increase access to information for everyone in the cancer community.

“The goal if this initiative is simple — to double the rate of progress. To make a decade worth of advances in 5 years,” Biden said.

Part of the problem is that many promising advances are “trapped in silos,” due to a lack of private and public resources, Biden said. He added that only 5% of patients with cancer in the U.S. are treated on a clinical trial, and that community oncologists often do not have access to the most ground-breaking technologies and treatments.

He said the federal government will provide the necessary funding, incentives and private sector coordination to support research and enable progress.

He also said he will encourage leading cancer centers to share their knowledge and understanding of the mechanisms of cancer and how to treat it. This can be accomplished by revolutionizing how data is shared — with patients as well as with doctors — and improving communication so the same care can be provided in community settings as in the top cancer centers.

Response from cancer community

ASCO and the American Association for Cancer Research (AACR) praised Obama and Biden for pledging to intensify the effort against cancer in their final year in office.

Richard Schilsky

Richard L. Schilsky

“With nearly 1.7 million people in the United States diagnosed with cancer each year, and the incidence of cancer expected to rise to 2.3 million cases per year by 2030, it is imperative that we do all we can to bring more effective treatments from the laboratory bench to the patient’s bedside as quickly as possible,” Richard L. Schilsky, MD, FACP, FASCO, chief medical officer for ASCO, said in a press release. “We must recommit to vastly speeding the discovery of new cancer treatments and enabling the possibility of precision medicine for every individual with cancer.”

José Baselga, MD, PhD

José  Baselga

A group of 15 AACR members, including José  Baselga, MD, PhD, society president and physician-in-chief and chief medical officer at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York, met with Biden’s senior staff on Jan. 8 to discuss the state of cancer research and Biden’s commitment to taking the lead on this cause.

“We have indeed reached an inflection point where the number of discoveries that are being made at such an accelerated pace are saving lives and bringing enormous hope for cancer patients, even those with advanced disease,” Baselga said in a statement from AACR. “Now is the time for a major new initiative in cancer science that supports and builds upon our basic science foundation while translating these exciting scientific discoveries into improved treatments for cancer patients, such as in the areas of genomics, precision medicine and immune-oncology.”

As part of his kickoff campaign, Biden will follow-up his visit at University of Pennsylvania with a trip to the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, where he’ll meet with international cancer experts. He then plans to convene a meeting with cabinet secretaries and agency heads to discuss the improvement of federal investment and support of cancer research and treatment.

“Fifty-five years ago, President Kennedy stood before a joint session of congress and said, ‘I believe we should go to the moon,’” Biden said. “It was a call to humankind. And it inspired a generation of Americans — my generation — in pursuit of science and innovation, where they literally pushed the boundaries of what was possible. This is our moonshot.” – by Anthony SanFilippo