It didn’t matter whether the statesman was visiting leaders in Asia or Africa, Europe or Australia, or whether the topic was trade or nuclear disarmament. During former Vice President Joseph Biden’s final year in office, one topic consistently arose in his conversations around the world: cancer.
On Monday, at the annual meeting of the American Association for Cancer Research, Biden reflected on the progress his Cancer Moonshot effort has made since it was announced by former President Obama in January 2016 ― and the support he’s garnered from all corners of the globe. In his remarks, Biden also provided impassioned encouragement to the thousands of cancer researchers attending the meeting in the midst of political uncertainty about the fate of research funding in the United States.
With “the incredible collective talent you possess, we can fundamentally change the prospect and promise of life for tens of millions of people around the world. I can think of nothing more noble than what you all are doing,” Biden said to his massive audience, which gathered in a cavernous hall in the Washington Convention Center in the nation’s capital to hear him.
The goal of the effort, now called the Beau Biden Cancer Moonshot in honor of his son who died of brain cancer in 2015, is to double the pace of progress in cancer research. Recommendations and goals laid out by the Cancer Moonshot Task Force are aimed largely at breaking down barriers to data sharing and increasing collaboration among researchers, efforts that have already begun, the former Vice President said.
“In the time we had, I think we were able to get a running shot,” he said Monday, citing new collaborations in computing and data-sharing that private companies like Amazon and IBM have forged with the government and nonprofit research organizations, and newly inked international agreements to share data for research.
Biden has been “overwhelmed,” he said, by the interest of the American public and people around the world to get behind the Moonshot’s goals. In the process, he added, “The Moonshot evolved from a project into a movement.”
Another achievement of the nascent Moonshot effort, Biden said, was the $1.8 billion increase earmarked for cancer research funding in the 21st Century Cures Act, which was signed by former President Obama in December 2016.
“The truth is, this is a bipartisan effort,” Biden said. The bill passed the House and Senate with comfortable margins, a notable accomplishment in a Congress that was often mired in interparty stalemate.
“For average Americans, this is what they expect their government to do,” Biden said. “To come together and pay attention to those things that fundamentally affect their lives.”
This funding is “a downpayment for us,” noted outgoing AACR President Dr. Nancy Davidson when she introduced the former Vice President. “This initiative could not have come at a better time … We are at an inflection point in cancer research,” said Davidson, who is holder of the Endowed Chair for Breast Cancer Research and the senior vice president and director of the Clinical Research Division at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, which Biden visited on his Moonshot listening tour in March 2016.
Biden’s appearance at the association’s annual meeting came in the midst of proposals from the White House to drastically decrease funding for medical research. President Donald Trump’s federal budget proposal, released on March 16, contained a cut of nearly 20 percent for the National Institutes of Health. On top of that, the president called last week for Congress to immediately slash $1.2 billion from research grants issued by the agency via a reduction in discretionary spending for the current fiscal year.
The budget proposals have come under fire by numerous speakers at the annual meeting, which is ongoing through Wednesday. In his remarks, Biden called the “draconian cuts” contained in the budget “counter to this hope and the progress we’ve made” at a time when researchers “are on the cusp of saving and extending lives of Americans.”
“This is no time to undercut progress. It’s time to double down,” Biden said.
Biden’s support for research funding was echoed by Rep. Kevin Yoder (R-KS), who participated in a panel moderated by Davidson following Biden’s remarks.
“Cancer knows no political party, it knows no region … it affects every member of Congress and their constituents,” said Yoder, a member of the House Appropriations Committee. “I’m here to reassure you that this continues to be a priority.”
“The support [for federally funded cancer research] will continue to be there regardless of who occupies the White House,” Yoder said.
Fred Hutch President and Director Dr. Gary Gilliland has also come out strongly against the cuts. In a statement and news conference following the release of the budget proposal, Gilliland said the proposed reduction was “devastating and unacceptable.”
“Patient lives are at stake,” Gilliland said at the time.
Joining Yoder on the panel — whose freewheeling discussion covered research funding, new collaborative efforts, patient experiences in cancer care and other topics — were Secretary of Transportation Elaine Chao, who lost her mother to cancer in 2007; actress and cancer survivor Fran Drescher; Dr. Richard Pazdur, director of the FDA’s Oncology Center of Excellence; AACR President Dr. Michael Caligiuri; AACR President-Elect Dr. Elizabeth Jaffee; Dr. Roger Dansey, a senior vice president at Merck; and Dr. Doug Lowy, interim director of the National Cancer Institute.
Yoder advised cancer survivors, patients and their families to tell their legislators personal stories of how research makes a difference in their lives to help protect research funding. He also urged scientists to share the excitement of their most cutting-edge projects — and the obstacles that stand in the way of breakthroughs.
Biden, who served in politics for more than four decades, told his audience that he did not think it was possible for the proposed research cuts to be enacted precisely because of the broad bipartisan support that cancer research enjoys.
However, he said that damage of a different kind has already been done: discouraging young people from pursuing careers in science “out of fear that these fields are no longer important to this country,” he said. “This is tragic. And we cannot let it happen.”
He ended his address by exhorting scientists to keep up their efforts to collaborate, to maintain a sense of urgency in their quest to save lives.
“The one thing I can tell you,” Biden said, “is that there is hope. You can feel it.”
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Susan Keown, a staff writer at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, has written about health and research topics for a variety of research institutions, including the National Institutes of Health and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @sejkeown.