Speaking to a packed and receptive room of scientists and physicians at the American Association for Cancer Research Annual Meeting 2016, Vice President Joe Biden talked strategy in making his “moonshot” to end cancer as we know it, a reality. “I have the mandate and the authority to use the power of the federal government to remove the barriers to research,” Biden said, turning to the room for ideas to speed the pace of cancer discovery.
According to Biden, who acknowledged the current divisive atmosphere in politics, support for cancer research is a bipartisan issue. Not only is it bipartisan, but Biden pointed out that it is global. Now when he meets with world leaders, Biden said that the first topic of discussion is not terrorism or economies, but is almost invariably cancer. Specifically, governments hope to engage with and contribute to the United States’ push to “make a decade of progress in five years”.
Two areas of research that received special attention were immunotherapy and harnessing the power of big data. Biden spoke about his son, Beau Biden’s, experience with glioblastoma, saying that after diagnosis they had access to the best doctors in the world. Beau was treated with a PD-1 inhibitor, one in a new class of drugs designed to block the strategies that cancer uses to make itself invisible to the immune system. This therapy was not successful. But Biden told the story of a young woman he recently met with the same disease, who had been given a similar treatment. “She is now cured,” he said.
In addition, Biden recognized the power of data gathering, aggregation and sharing to draw conclusions about possible new treatments for diseases that may affect only small subsets of cancer patients. For example, Biden recognized the Oncology Research Information Exchange Network (ORIEN) of which the University of Colorado Cancer Center is a proud member, one of 15 prestigious research institutions that have agreed to share data toward the goal of focusing the power of numbers on extending lives.
“We have to give you the ability to take chances,” Biden said, discussing his goal to make the research grant process more efficient. “We slow down our best young minds by making them spend years in a lab before they can get their own grants,” he said. And then, he continued, the results of these taxpayer-funded studies are often held behind the paywalls of academic journals.
It is these systems that Biden hopes to change.
“We are at an inflection point in our treatment of cancer,” he said. “I’ve taken on some big assignments in my career…but this is bigger, and I know so much less.”
The opportunity and expectation is now with the community of cancer scientists to infuse this moonshot with the knowledge it needs to push the field forward.