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Vice President Joe Biden in 2012.

Vice President Joe Biden in 2012.

Marc Nozell/Flicker (CC BY 2.0)

What Vice President Biden’s moonshot may mean for cancer research

Cancer researchers are welcoming but eagerly awaiting more details on Vice President Joe Biden’s newly announced plan to lead “a moonshot” to cure cancer. They have tossed out some of their own thoughts on what the plan should entail, while tempering expectations for a single cancer cure. Their overall hope, they say, is that it will mean steady funding increases for the National Institutes of Health (NIH).

Biden, whose son Beau died of brain cancer last year, first announced his cancer moonshot in October 2015. President Obama discussed the plan last night in his State of the Union address, saying, “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.”

Biden’s plan describes increased funding, from both the government and the private sector, for combatting cancer. He also wants to “break down silos and bring all the cancer fighters together—to work together, share information, and end cancer as we know it.” The goal is to double the pace of progress, or as he put it: “to make a decade worth of advances in 5 years.”

To do this, Biden plans to lead an effort involving government, industry, researchers, patient groups, and philanthropies to “target investment, coordinate across silos, and increase access to information.”

The vow to cure cancer brings to mind some past efforts, such as President Nixon’s war on cancer of the early 1970s, and a pledge by Andrew von Eschenbach, former National Cancer Institute (NCI) director (2002–06), to eliminate suffering and death from cancer by 2015. Scientists generally cringe at setting firm timelines for research goals and for cancer in particular, which is a complex disease that experts consider a set of more than 200 diseases. “We have seen progress in specific subsets of cancer. Hopefully those are the kinds of things where we can say, yes, we have cures here and here,” says Jon Retzlaff, managing director of science policy and government affairs for the American Association for Cancer Research (AACR) in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

Clinical researchers are similarly wary of shooting for an overall cure. “It has to be more of an individualized approach to the type of cancer and even the patient,” says the University of Nebraska, Omaha's Julie Vose, president of the American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO). ASCO’s hope, she says, is that Biden “will be able to come up with a comprehensive approach to advancing cancer research and care.”

ASCO and AACR were among a number of groups that met with Biden’s staff last week at the White House. The 15 AACR scientists, who were already in Washington, D.C., to meet with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration on genetic testing for cancer patients, tossed around ideas including expanding NCI’s tumor genome-sequencing efforts and getting the government to cover the costs of genomic tumor profiling. ASCO also hopes Biden can help clear up the red tape that is one reason why only 5% of cancer patients enroll in clinical trials, Vose says.

Both groups also discussed various efforts to pool data from patients so researchers and clinicians can learn what treatments work on which patients. AACR recently launched one such project called GENIE (Genomics, Evidence, Neoplasia, Information, Exchange), and there are others, such as ASCO’s CancerLinQ. Maybe Biden can find a way to “streamline” these projects, Retzlaff says.

Biden has also been talking to Los Angeles, California, oncologist and billionaire Patrick Soon-Shiong, who on 11 January announced an industry-led moonshot aimed at testing in clinical trials combinations of cancer immunotherapy drugs, one of most promising new cancer treatments in recent years.

Normally, new research initiatives announced in the State of the Union address, such as the BRAIN (Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Technologies) neuroscience effort or the Precision Medicine Initiative launched last year, are part of the president’s budget request to Congress released a couple weeks later. But with the Obama administration in its final year, Biden won’t be around to see the fiscal year 2017 budget carried out.

One thing AACR hopes won’t happen is that Biden will move money around in the 2016 budget already underway. “We don’t want to see reallocation of existing dollars at NIH to pay for this initiative,” Retzlaff says. But he hopes the Biden moonshot will help persuade Congress to build on the 6.6% raise it gave to NIH this year, its largest boost in 12 years, and continue steady increases for the agency.

Meanwhile, “a lot of things could be done in this final year” of the Obama administration, Retzlaff says. “[Medicare and Medicaid] issues, working with groups on data-sharing plans, definitely putting something in place where there are dollars available in fiscal year 2017.“ And Biden has said he will continue his moonshot effort even after his term ends. “That’s what’s so exciting, that the cancer community can coalesce around some big ideas, and these ideas will continue after he leaves,” Retzlaff says.

On Friday, Biden will be getting more ideas on what might be included in his moonshot, as he travels to Philadelphia to tour the Perelman School of Medicine and the Abramson Cancer Center at the University of Pennsylvania, and lead a round-table discussion with researchers.