Biden: Cancer Moonshot Seeks Quantum Leaps, Not Incremental Change
The text of Vice President Joe Biden’s Jan. 19 remarks at a World Economic Forum meeting of international cancer experts in Davos-Klosters, Switzerland, follows:
Almost everyone in the world, as you all know, has a family member who’s had cancer. Every year, around the world, 14 million people are diagnosed with cancer and 8 million people succumb to it, die, from cancer.
And like many of you, I have experienced in my family the dreaded C-word that I think is the most frightening word that most people—as these docs and scientists can tell you—that anyone wants to hear walking out of a doctor’s office.
When I decided not to seek the nomination of my party, the president and I walked out in the Rose Garden to make the announcement and I said—it was almost spontaneous—that had I run, I would’ve liked to have been the president that literally changed the face of cancer. I realize there have been many moonshots, there has been a lot of talk about it, but the truth of the matter is that I said I believed we need a moonshot in this country, an absolute national commitment to end cancer as we know it.
I’m not naïve to think that, as some have suggested, that we’re going to have a cure to every cancer in the world, that that’s going to come in the near term. That’s not what is happening. But I must admit, I was absolutely dumbfounded by the international reaction. I literally heard from thousands of people. I heard from a group of a dozen different philanthropists who have invested billions of their own dollars in this effort.
I’ve heard from all of the, not all, the vast majority of the national cancer institutes in my country and abroad. I’ve subsequently met with over 220 oncologists and researchers and folks in the field. The one thing that I was dumbfounded by is that I’ve also heard from literally thousands of cancer survivors, and I go home in my home constituency where I was a senator for a long time, and standing in line to pick up groceries, people coming up and saying, “Thank you.”
I want to make it clear to everyone: I know I can be nothing more than a catalyst here. I’m the repository of little to no expertise in this area. But I had been, at least in the confines of my country, relatively good at convening people and bringing folks together. And the fact of the matter is, I’ve learned through personal experience with the help of a number of brilliant scientists and doctors like many here today, that there are multiple disciplines needed to attack this disease.
I know that’s tough for the average person to fully appreciate, because when they think—and you talk about a moonshot—they think of one of these brilliant scientists in the laboratory finding the silver bullet that’s going to cure cancer. But it is so much more than that.
An Inflection Point
There’s immunologists, geneticists, virologists, molecular biologists, scientists, technology companies adept in supercomputing and aggregating Big Data, practicing oncologists who are on the front lines delivering care with not enough access to information. By having subsequently met, as I said, with hundreds of the world’s top cancer physicians, researchers and philanthropists, technology leaders, cancer organizations, there seems to be a consensus around several issues.
One is we are at an inflection point. A great deal has happened just in the last decade or less in the fight against cancer. Research and therapies are on the cusp of incredible breakthroughs, and just in the past few years, we’ve seen some amazing advances in technology and science. Immunotherapy and genomics and virology and combination therapies are being leveraged in a way they weren’t being leveraged four, five or six years ago. And with us today is Dr. Jennifer Doudna, whose work is helping us read our DNA and our genetic makeup, Dr. Patricia Hammons, who is developing nanoparticles to deliver therapies to resist tumors.
I met three days ago with Dr. Carl June, who is one of the world’s foremost researchers in immunotherapy, Dr. [Francis] Collins here, the head of the NIH who led the Human Genome Project. There’s a whole range of disciplines that, unlike five or 10 years ago, are becoming interdisciplinary.
Secondly, almost every cancer center keeps a database of information, genetic history, medical records, and tissue banks that might hold the key to cancer therapies, but tapping this treasure trove of information is vital to speeding the pace of progress toward cancer cures. I’ve met with former Governor of Utah Jon Huntsman of the Huntsman Cancer Institute, who brought to my attention that the Utah population database includes complete medical records from cradle to grave, including genetic profiles and cancer diagnoses for going back years and years and years.
With advances in supercomputers making a billion billion computations per second, and going through thousands of miles of fiber-optic cable around the world, this data is a treasure trove—an absolute treasure trove that is being synced up now for the first time in human history. If we aggregate all this data in one place that’s readable and accessible for scientists, researchers and physicians, then the consensus is, we can in fact speed up research advances and improve access to cures.
But some argue that we could do more if this information was more widely shared and available. That’s one of the questions I’d like to explore today with this panel. We’re going to make sure this information is being shared so an oncologist in Austin, Texas, can access information from MD Anderson, a major cancer institute where my son was treated, but now has no access—geographically close, but no access. We’re going to make sure that information being shared by an oncologist in Columbus, Ohio, can get information to one of the great clinics in the world, Cleveland Clinic, represented here by Dr. [Delos] Cosgrove.
Creating a Shared Database
Two major such undertakings are represented today. The American Society of Clinical Oncology has its CancerLinQ network that partners with SAP—led by Bill McDermott, who’s here—to harness Big Data and personalize care for millions of cancer patients. Also, the American Association for Cancer Research has GENIE—led by Dr. [Charles] Sawyers and Dr. [José] Baselga—that’s an international data sharing system.
I’ve also met with the folks at Quilt [a national coalition of advanced regional networks for research and education] with access to the National LambdaRail which has 12,000 miles of fiber optic cable lines that deliver huge amounts of data at 1.6 terabytes a second, and another organization ORIEN, founded by the Moffitt Cancer Center and the Ohio State University James Cancer Center, is bringing together data from 11 different cancer research centers.
I recently received a letter from the president’s chief technology office essentially recommending, “Why not just have a single place for this data?” I’m not sure that’s possible, but it’s one of the things I’d like to discuss a little bit. The president and I also received recommendations from the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology, made up of some of the most brilliant minds in the country, including Nobel laureates like you, Dr. [Elizabeth] Blackburn and doctors from the Salk Institute—they recommended to improve interoperability between the systems to ensure accuracy and safe and secure sharing of data. This is an issue that I’d like speak to today.
There’s also the issue of privacy surrounding access to all of this, and right now, only 5 percent of all cancer patients in the United States—and I’m sure it’s similar around the world—end up in a clinical trial. Most aren’t given access to their own data even in that circumstance. So I’d like to talk about some of the recommendations I’ve heard from other outside advisors and experts: What do we do to reduce costs? Is it possible to reduce costs for these clinical trials? And how do we expand access to these trials.
Other questions need to be asked: How do we get drugs companies to take part in the solution and the progress we all want to make? Some are struggling with that right now. Should a person own their own genome and their own data? That’s another question that is very lively today.
Doubling the Rate of Progress
But I’m convinced that together, we can find a way to answer each of these questions, and in the process, I think we can end up developing game-changing treatments and deliver them to everyone, everyone who needs them. That’s the goal, at least, that the president and I are talking about—to double the rate of progress we’re making in understanding and treating cancer.
Our goal is to make a decade’s worth of advances in five years instead of 10, and eventually end cancer as we know it. We’re not trying to make incremental change, we’re looking for quantum leaps, and again, all whom I’ve spoken to now said this is one of those inflection points where it’s possible, that there’s a possibility of making quantum leaps.
The president asked me to lead this effort for the administration in areas where I can hopefully be some value added. One is raising, in the United States, federal funds—we were able to do that; added another $2 billion to this fight in last year’s budget, and I’m hopeful we can do more next year and beyond—coordinating all our federal agencies: the NIH, the NCI, HHS, DOD, VA, the Department of Energy, the national laboratories. All of them have a part to play and the president is going to be issuing an executive order shortly that the bad news for them is having them all have to answer to me, literally, not figuratively, because just like we did in the [American] Recovery [and Reinvestment] Act [of 2009], one thing we can do is we want to get out of the way of all of you.
If we’re in your way, if there’s any bureaucratic impediments we’re presenting, if there’s any collaborative work we can do, we want to be a part of it. We’ve got some fairly adept and bright people in the government—Ernie Moniz is very anxious to get engaged on the part of the Department of Energy, and the national labs can play a part as well.
And thirdly, to attempt to coordinate the private sector to share data and research and helping make this more collaborative. And again, where we are an impediment, where you view us as being somehow a bureaucratic stumbling block, I promise you, I can clear the way. That’s the only thing I can promise you, because I am very rude when it comes to dealing with bureaucratic blockades as the secretary can tell you, although never have I had any difficulty with the secretary.
A National Priority
But all kidding aside, I want to make it clear: we don’t think the federal government is the answer to this. But we think the federal government can be value added, and we want to be helpful. We need your help as to what we should doing that we’re not doing, and we will not be shy to privately tell you where we think we need more help from you and how to break down some of these barriers.
The one thing I promise you is that we will do our best at the federal level to make this not just a moonshot, but a priority. Everyone will be aware this is one of the priorities for this administration this last year, so we leave the next administration in the position where there’s even an ability to make significantly more progress by either cooperating with helping and/or responding to your needs.
To break through some of the barriers, to speed up progress and research, liver treatments and increased access to these new approaches for millions of people is the goal. And that’s why I am here. I’m flattered that Dr. [Klaus] Schwab would suggest that we have this forum and that I participate in it, but my main purpose here is to listen.
I’ll conclude by saying that while we may focus the rest of the time on—well, I am going to focus the rest of the time I have in office, it’s only 12 months—the bad news for you all is I plan on making this a major part of whatever I do the rest of my life. And it’s something everyone can be a part of: researchers, corporations, oncologists join in the effort and help us find a way to share data and collaborate, patients and their families demand that they be active partners in care and research and access to their data and the ability to contribute research, sign up for clinical trials.
ClinicalTrials.gov has a list of those trials that are going on now in the United States. Tell your story. Everyone can advocate with their political leaders for importance of funding and cutting-edge research, so I look forward to this discussion and I look forward to coming back next year with Dr. Schwab’s permission and reconvene in this group or group like it so we can demonstrate that we have actually made some concrete progress in the last year, which would happen whether we had this or not, but as much progress as we can.