Former U.S. Vice President Joe Biden speaks at the AAAS meeting in Austin.

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Biden blasts science denialists, calls to dramatically speed up fight against cancer

AUSTIN—Fresh off a plane from the North Atlantic Treaty Organization meeting in Munich, Germany, where he’d conferred with world leaders on global defense, former U.S. Vice President Joe Biden issued a forceful call here last night to build on the cancer moonshot he started while in the White House and transform the way the world fights cancer.

“We have to disrupt the system we’ve been using until now to deliver a system that can create much better outcomes for people facing cancer,” he said. 

In a keynote speech at the annual meeting of AAAS, which publishes Science, Biden also eviscerated the current trend toward science denial by President Donald Trump’s administration and other national leaders, and issued a passionate call to double or even triple federal science funding.

“If entire agencies aren’t allowed to use the words ‘evidence-based’ or ‘science-based,’ it reminds me of an Inquisition writ small,” he said. “You in this audience are the nation’s best defense against climate change, famine, threats to national defense, and much more.”

As vice president from 2008 to 2016, Biden, whose son Beau died in 2015 at age 46 after a prolonged battle with brain cancer, led the White House cancer moonshot. He continued the work after he left office through the Biden Cancer Initiative. The goal of both was to accelerate progress in cancer research and treatment enough to do in 5 years what would have taken 10.

Biden touted some of the work’s key advances, including a successful bipartisan push in 2016 that increased funding for the National Cancer Institute (NCI) by $1.8 billion. (It also included a regulatory rollback at the Food and Drug Administration meant to accelerate approval of drugs and medical devices.) The Trump administration proposed to cut it all. “Not only was it not cut, but Congress added $2 billion more,” Biden thundered, to loud applause.

But the former vice president did not let scientists off the hook, calling for them to focus cancer research on patient health, rather than professional advancement. A proprietary culture of medicine gets in the way of sharing data that could lead to better diagnosis and cures, he said. “Writ large, you scientists don’t share well.” 

The cancer moonshot has begun to change that, he said, citing NCI’s cloud-based Genomic Data Commons, a data repository meant to encourage researchers on different studies to share cancer genomic data to advance precision medicine. The repository now includes genomic data from 40 thousand patients, and it has been accessed 80 million times since it was set up last summer. 

“The important thing is that all the data is available to any researcher anywhere,” Biden said. “That increases the chances exponentially that we’ll find answers.”

Similarly, the NCI Formulary, a partnership between NCI and biotechnology and pharmaceutical companies to improve access to otherwise proprietary experimental drugs, has so far enabled about a dozen pharmaceutical and biotech companies to work through thorny negotiations on intellectual property, licensing, and other issues, to speed research and clinical testing. “We hit the sweet spot between research and the profit move,” Biden said.

In his talk, Biden laid out a vision of a world in which children can be vaccinated against all sorts of cancers, cancer can be diagnosed by simple blood tests, and sophisticated artificial intelligence systems can determine effective and personalized treatment plans. What’s more, “I see a day patients don’t have to choose between keeping their homes and affording life-saving treatments,” he said to another loud round of applause. 

Biden compared the current fight against cancer to the evolutionary theory of punctuated equilibrium, in which fires, floods, and other events that threaten the survival of species force them to either adapt or die, he said. Social transformation works the same way, Biden said, citing the civil rights, women’s, and environmental movements, and dramatic reductions in smoking and drunk driving. “All have disrupted our equilibrium to create a renewed society.”

But over the last decade and a half, the American people seem to be losing confidence in their ability to transform the world for the better, Biden said. “That never happened in my career before.” 

The cancer moonshot could change that, he said. “It’s the one way to convince the American people that we can embark on so many other astonishing efforts that are within our capacity to handle.” 

Check out all of our coverage of AAAS 2018.