By Daniel Garcia
Former US Vice President Joe Biden has become one of science’s greatest allies. His leadership in the Cancer Moonshot Initiative led to increased funding for the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and National Cancer Institute (NCI) that was recently approved by Congress. Joe’s advocacy for science funding reinforces his reputation as a constant friend and ally, which has recently taken hold in the public consciousness in the form of memes. These memes not only showcase Joe’s comedic nature, but more importantly his undying role as loyal friend, supporter, and wingman. With this in mind, you can understand how excited I was to see Joe speak at the American Association for Cancer Research (AACR) Annual Meeting in Washington, D.C. back in early April.
If you’re unfamiliar with AACR, it is the world’s largest and oldest cancer research organization. Their annual meeting is one of the largest I’ve ever seen, attracting some 20,000 attendees and covering everything from basic, clinical, and translational research to diagnostics and even patient advocacy, making it the perfect setting for Joe to update the scientific community on the progress of the Cancer Moonshot Initiative.
What is the Cancer Moonshot Initiative?
Joe Biden lost his son Beau to brain cancer in 2015. Beau was 46 years old. Ever since then, he’s been an advocate for cancer research and increasing federal funding for the NIH. His advocacy came to fruition in early 2016 when President Barack Obama appointed Joe to be in charge of the Cancer Moonshot Initiative, named to inspire the same energy and enthusiasm for scientific progress against cancer as President Kennedy’s call to send humans to the moon.
The Cancer Moonshot Initiative is one section within the 21st Century Cures Act, a larger piece of legislation passed by Congress in December 2016 that mandates increased spending on health care programs for opioid addiction, the Precision Medicine Initiative, and the BRAIN Initiative, among other programs.
The Cancer Moonshot Initiative, which allocates $1.8 billion to the NIH and NCI over the next 7 years, is more than just a funding boost. As Joe stated in his opening remarks at AACR, there are many hurdles and barriers facing the progress of scientists today in getting grants, publishing, and tenure. Solely giving more money to the NIH won’t necessarily solve these issues. Joe emphasized that, in order to achieve the goals of the Moonshot, the culture of science needs to change. Public and private sector research groups need to share ideas, share data, and collaborate. Collaboration and data sharing are a major requirement in getting a Moonshot grant, and this is what makes the Initiative different from every other funding boost.
Doubling the rate of research progress
Motivated by his son’s battle with cancer, Joe seized the opportunity to lead the Cancer Moonshot Initiative which strives “to reduce incidence, morbidity, and mortality of cancer by making a decade of research progress in 5 years.” Joe pledged that the Moonshot will increase resources to public and private entities that engage in cancer research, and break down “silos” in order to bring researchers together and share information.
Over the course of 2016, Joe traveled the country to bring together the brightest minds in cancer research to figure out the best way to implement the Moonshot funds. He established the Blue Ribbon Panel made up of leading experts (including one of UCSD’s own faculty, Maria Elena Martinez) to recommend areas of research which hold the most promise and should be prioritized. The top 10 recommendations are detailed in their 2016 report and include expanding prevention and early detection strategies, building a national cancer data ecosystem, and mining patient data and samples currently sitting around in biobanks.
Since the passage of the Moonshot legislation, 80 new actions and collaborations have been formed with Moonshot funding. Here are some of the more notable ones:
- To increase access to precision medicine, the Department of Veteran’s Affairs (VA) is partnering with IBM to use IBM’s Watson for Genomics technology to help VA physicians provide personalized treatment recommendations to veterans.
- To increase access to clinical trials, a new database was designed by a team of Presidential Innovation Fellows and the NCI. Patients can more easily find eligible trials near them and discuss options with their doctors. Uber and Lyft are also partnering to help patients get to and from clinical trials locations, especially targeting low-income communities.
- To share data faster, Amazon has agreed to store data generated by Moonshot collaborations for free on their cloud computing services. The data has already been accessed 80 million times by research groups around the world.
- For easier access of past clinical and genomic data, the University of Chicago partnered with the NCI to create the Genomic Data Commons, a centralized and standardized database for raw patient clinical and genomic data.
- To enhance early detection of cancer, a consortium of government, academic, and pharmaceutical entities called the Blood Profiling Atlas Pilot (BPAP) was formed. A simple blood test, or liquid biopsy, is becoming a good non-invasive alternative to diagnose cancer patients. The BPAP is working together to accelerate the development of blood profiling technology. The group is also developing a database for oncologists to access liquid biopsy information for diagnosing cancer patients.
There are additional examples of these kinds of partnerships, but these show the unprecedented level of collaboration and data sharing between different scientific groups. It seems like the research blueprint laid out by the Blue Ribbon Panel is taking form and will hopefully bring about research successes more quickly.
Leading ain’t easy
What Joe did for the Moonshot may seem, at face value, a simple task: bringing together groups of people to determine how to effectively speed up the rate of research progress. But Joe told a different story when addressing the crowd at AACR.
Joe had many doubters at first: he was warned that public and private entities would not collaborate, and it would be difficult to convince them to do so. Not to mention, the political landscape in 2016 was tough. It was the “lame-duck” period of the Obama administration, so not much legislation was being passed in Congress and no new spending was being approved. Thankfully, Joe was able to get a bipartisan consensus for his initiative. Even Senator Mitch McConnell, in a rare stroke of bipartisan support, gave a moving tribute in Congress and renamed the initiative after Joe’s late son, Beau.
Once the Moonshot Initiative gained momentum, public interest quickly grew. It even gained support and interest from the international community. Joe recounted that whenever he and President Obama would travel to meet with other world leaders, cancer research was always brought up as a topic of discussion. In one particular meeting, President Obama had to derail a conversation on the Moonshot’s progress to bring the meeting back on track to the original agenda: nuclear non-proliferation. So it’s clear that Joe has a great ability to bring people together to not only discuss how to change the status quo, but to implement actions based on those discussions.
The Cancer Moonshot Initiative lived a short life on paper. It was just an idea in 2015, passed and materialized as an official agency in 2016, and ended in 2017. Unfortunately, the Moonshot is no longer an office in the White House, it was removed by the Trump administration. Despite this setback, there is good news: Congress recently approved a $2 billion increase to the NIH for the next 5 months — this is a huge win for science in America. It is now up to Congress to continue the funding appropriated by the Moonshot and 21st Century Cures Act for 2018 and into the future.
Until then, the Moonshot will live on as a new cancer initiative funded in part through Joe’s charitable foundation, The Biden Foundation, with similar goals as the original Cancer Moonshot. It will be interesting to see how the Moonshot funding creates research successes and if it achieves the goal of a decade of progress in just 5 years. It would also be great to see if the Moonshot model of collaborating and sharing takes hold in other scientific arenas. As Joe emphasized at AACR, President John F. Kennedy put us on the path to be a world leader in science and technology with his original “moonshot” speech in 1961. Hopefully, the Cancer Moonshot will launch us toward a similar path in scientific research.
In the end, Joe continues to be an excellent “wingman” for science even after leaving office. “I’ve got news for y’all, I’m not going anywhere!” he exclaimed at the end of his remarks at AACR. He then went on to show his appreciation for our work as scientists: “I can think of nothing more noble to be engaged in than what all of you are doing. You’re an incredible national and international resource.” It’s encouraging to know that there are politicians out there that value and appreciate our work as scientists, giving us the support we need to do what we do.