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AACR Annual Meeting 2017: “What a Difference a Year Makes”

Former Vice President Joe Biden talks about hope, progress and hurdles for scientists and the Cancer Moonshot initiative. By Marci A. Landsmann

In April 2016, Vice President Joe Biden called for collaboration among cancer researchers at the American Association for Cancer Research (AACR) Annual Meeting in New Orleans, just months after President Barack Obama put him at the helm of the National Cancer Moonshot Initiative to accelerate cancer research.

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​Former Vice President Joe Biden speaks at the American Association for Cancer Research Annual Meeting 2017. | Photo by © AACR/Todd Buchanan 2017
A year later, on April 3, 2017, Biden again addressed attendees at the AACR Annual Meeting, this time in Washington, D.C., to talk about the power of collaboration. His efforts, near the end of his term as vice president, culminated in the passage of the 21st Century Cures Act with sweeping bipartisan support in December 2016. The 21st Century Cures Act provides $6.3 billion in funding to help speed up the pace of research for various diseases, including $1.8 billion for cancer research, over 10 years.

In front of a packed ballroom of scientists and patient advocates, Biden described how touched he was when Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell told him before the bill’s passage that the legislation’s cancer provision would be named after Biden’s son, Beau, who died from brain cancer in May 2015. 

“Those things don’t happen very much these days,” Biden said with emotion. “It is because of the leadership of both political parties, not me.  … For average Americans, this is what they expect their government to do. They expect their government to come together and pay attention to those things that fundamentally affect their lives.” 

The Cancer Moonshot aims to do two things, Biden said: inject urgency to accelerate cancer research and challenge people from all disciplines to look at the cancer problem in a more collaborative way. The complexity of cancer requires work between some obvious and no-so-obvious experts, including virologists, immunologists, geneticists, chemical and biomedical engineers, data scientists and computer engineers, he said.

“For decades, we thought we could tackle cancer one discipline at a time, but as all of you know, that is not how cancer operates,” Biden said. “Cancer uses every tool at its disposal. It hides from the immune system. It builds its own blood supply. It uses viruses to spread. It engineers a friendly cell environment to support its survival and its growth. And it knows how to spread through the body using pathways and mutations that we don’t fully understand even at this moment. Cancer never gives up. It never surrenders. And that’s why we have to use every discipline that cancer does and we’re starting to do that in a more coordinated way, in my view.”

Biden’s efforts have increased collaboration among government agencies, such as the Energy and Defense departments, and private sector companies, including IBM and Amazon. Initiatives include efforts to make the government clinical trials website​ more search-friendly for the average patient, to explore blood biopsies for the early detection of cancer, and to build a 3-D Cancer Atlas that will allow researchers to map cancer from initiation to metastasis and find new treatments.

Biden’s optimism and talk of progress was tempered by what he termed a threat: proposed cuts to federal science-related agencies and programs. Although he believes Congress will reject the cuts, he lamented the deflating message sent by the budget-cutting proposals, especially for young people who may be considering a career in science.  He drew a parallel to an initiative from the 1960s that provided inspiration for his own legislation: President John F. Kennedy’s dream to send humans to the moon.

“When Kennedy launched the original moonshot, he inspired a generation of young people to enter science and technology,” Biden said. “His famous speech not only led to landing humans on the moon and bringing them back safely within a decade, but he set us on the path to be a world leader—the world leader—in science and technology, education training and achievement.” 

Proposed budget cuts threaten not only cancer research, but other scientific disciplines. “The message sent out a few weeks ago in the president’s budget is counter to this hope and the progress we’ve made,” said Biden, who noted that the Trump administration is proposing a $5.8 billion cut to the National Institutes of Health budget for fiscal year 2018 and a $1.2 billion cut to this year’s budget—measures that would undermine funding for research grants.  “The president is not only not doubling down on our investment, he’s proposing draconian cuts not only to biomedical research but to the entire scientific expertise across the board,” Biden said.

For his part, the former vice president vowed to stay involved as a private citizen and to continue to accelerate progress with his own initiative. He described a time of upheaval when he was in law school in 1968, when the Vietnam War was at its height and Sen. Robert F. Kennedy and civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. were assassinated. 

“Even in those days, there was still this view that the United States of America was all about possibility,” Biden said. “We had the intellectual capacity, particularly in the area of science and technology, to do anything. Think about it. We kind of lost that notion out there, but you guys, you hold the key not only to cancer but to reinvigorate the nation to a sense of purpose and possibilities.”


Marci A. Landsmann is the senior editor of Cancer Today.
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