Biden touts cancer ‘moonshot’ at JFK Library, but challenges remain

BOSTON — Drawing on the symbolism of President John F. Kennedy’s ambitious effort to land a man on the moon, President Biden on Monday sought to inject new momentum into his own “cancer moonshot” initiative, aimed at reducing the death toll in the United States from the disease will halve over the next 25 years.

Biden delivered the speech on the 60th anniversary of Kennedy’s Moonshot Speech, speaking from the late president’s museum and library. It was a less than subtle effort to convince Americans that the goal of eradicating cancer is not hopelessly out of reach.

“I believe we can usher in the same reluctance to postpone, the same national purpose that will serve to energize and measure the best of our skills, to end cancer as we know it, and even to cure cancer once and for all. all,” Biden said. , borrowing phrases from Kennedy.

Still, the anti-cancer effort, initially launched in the final year of the Obama administration and frequently touted by Biden on the campaign trail, faced setbacks and struggles under his administration, and researchers hoped that the presidential infusion of energy would put him on a better trajectory.

At Monday’s event, Biden announced he was appointing Dr. Renee Wegrzyn, a senior executive at Gingko Bioworks, a biotech company, as the first director of a new agency called the Advanced Research Projects Agency for Health, or ARPA- H. Created in March to fund healthcare innovation, it is inspired by the Pentagon’s DARPA program, which has spurred high-risk, high-reward breakthroughs like GPS and the internet.

Previously, Wegrzyn was a program manager at DARPA, where his work included research on how to respond to pathogens such as infectious diseases.

Biden also signed an executive order on Monday for a biotechnology initiative that the White House hopes will make the United States less dependent on foreign countries for the tools and raw materials needed for medical progress.

“It’s not enough to invent technology that saves lives,” Biden said. “We need to manufacture advanced biotechnology here in the United States. Today’s actions will ensure that America leads the world in biotechnology and biomanufacturing, creating jobs and strengthening the supply chain.

The administration’s drive to create ARPA-H has been controversial among some researchers, who fear the new agency could divert funding from the National Institutes of Health.

And the Moonshot effort, led by Danielle Carnival, has been hampered by a lack of staff, resources and people in key positions in government health agencies, according to several cancer advocates and experts with knowledge of the situation and familiarity. expressed on the condition. anonymity to avoid fraying relations with the White House.

In an article published in May, Sarina Neote, director of public affairs for the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, warned: “There will be no medical breakthroughs or groundbreaking discoveries without sustained investments in basic scientific research. . We urge policymakers to prioritize, not plunder, NIH funding. »

Biden’s top science adviser, Eric Lander, who was originally hired to oversee the moonshot, abruptly left the administration after admitting to abusing and humiliating subordinates. The administration has been criticized for not asking for new funding to get the retooled moonshot off the ground.

And key positions — including the director of the National Cancer Institute, the head of the new ARPA-H research organization and a top presidential science adviser — have been vacant for months. But now the administration has tapped people for all three roles, fueling hopes that the moonshot effort will pick up speed.

“So far, the moonshot has been an indoor game, without a lot of resources and people in critical positions,” said Greg Simon, who was executive director of cancer moonshot in 2016 when Biden oversaw it. as vice president. “It’s the start of the outdoor game.”

Although still nascent, the effort has already shown some benefits, experts say.

The Cancer Initiative, which was officially relaunched by Biden in February, has held numerous meetings in recent months with the administration’s “cancer cabinet” — officials across government who work on anti-cancer initiatives. cancer – as well as advocates and industry representatives.

Simon hailed the administration’s focus on ARPA-H, saying he will pioneer a crucial role that no other health agency can handle. The NIH, which focuses on basic research, “cannot transform itself into a development agency that prioritizes technologies and cures,” he said.

The new agency “is the beginning of an effort to link the work of the NIH to the needs of the people by making leaps and bounds in technology that the NIH is not set up to make,” Simon added. Congress approved $1 billion for the new agency.

Cary Gross, director of the Center for Cancer Outcomes, Public Policy and Efficacy Research at the Yale School of Medicine, said some of Biden’s efforts, while technically not part of the moonshot, could make a difference. big difference – a cap of $2,000 a year on prescription drug costs for Medicare beneficiaries.

“If that’s the only thing that happened in the first six months of the moonshot, that’s a huge win,” Gross said.

Gross urged the leaders of the moonshot and ARPA-H “to look into the idea that there are many [drugs] that are on the market that we do not have an adequate understanding of their risks and benefits. He said the administration should come up with a plan to research drug performance in real patients, who tend to be older and sicker than participants in clinical trials.

“I think most patients don’t recognize the degree of uncertainty” that surrounds drug efficacy, he said.

Edward Abrahams, president of the Coalition for Personalized Medicine, an advocacy group that focuses on targeted therapies and other treatments, welcomed the new executive order aimed at ensuring that cutting-edge biotechnology – including cell therapies essential for cancer treatments – are made in the United States. . And he welcomed the announcement of a major clinical trial launched by the National Cancer Institute to test so-called liquid biopsies, blood tests used to detect cancer in its early stages.

“These ideas are something the federal government can do to move the needle forward,” he said.

Ellen Sigal, president of Friends of Cancer Research, said Monday’s milestones, along with new leaders from key agencies, suggest that the lunar effort, as well as the current pace of scientific innovation, ” could really change what a cancer diagnosis means to patients.”

But some experts have urged the administration to take a broad view of the moonshot, including finding ways to help cancer patients based on what is already known.

Otis Brawley, professor of oncology and epidemiology at Johns Hopkins University, said about 20% of the 600,000 annual cancer deaths in the United States could be prevented if disparities were reduced so that people who had high school students receive the same help with prevention, diagnosis, screening and treatment as those with a college education.

“I’m not against treatment, but we’re much more interested in finding early treatments than trying to prevent cancer in the first place,” Brawley said.

Biden became a strong advocate for cancer research, with much of his inspiration coming after his son Beau died of brain cancer in 2015. His efforts were sometimes deeply personal — he used his own connection with cancer to speak with others, frequently on the campaign trail — and sometimes political, as he made it a cause he sought to address with new federal policies.

“Everywhere we go, people are sharing their stories, literally in grocery store stories, airports, ropes,” he said Monday.

Biden’s anti-cancer efforts also provided a rare moment of bipartisanship in Washington. Biden has worked closely with Republicans — including Senate GOP Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) — to pass the 21st Century Cures bill. It was one of the last pieces of legislation Barack Obama signed as president, and McConnell also announced that the Senate would rename the act’s cancer program after Biden’s son, a touching moment that had Biden ripped from the Senate president’s chair. bedroom.

“He knows the cruel toll this disease can have,” McConnell said of Biden. “But he didn’t let it defeat him.”

Biden had used Beau’s death for years to speak out and defend cancer initiatives. He has spoken more openly in recent months about the possibility that his son’s cancer resulted from his military service near toxic fires in Iraq and Kosovo. Last month, with bipartisan support, he signed the PACT Act, new legislation that provides additional coverage for veterans who, like his son, were exposed to toxic burning stoves during their military service.

On his trip to Massachusetts, Biden also appeared with state Attorney General Maura Healey, who is the Democratic gubernatorial candidate and is running against Geoff Diehl, a former state lawmaker backed by Trump. . Healey participated with Biden in a photo line at the Kennedy Library.

And as Biden invoked President Kennedy’s yearning for the moon, he was also thinking of Edward M. Kennedy, the late Massachusetts senator and longtime Biden ally, who died of the same brain cancer as Beau.

Just after landing in Boston, Biden spoke about Senator Kennedy campaigning for him during Biden’s first Senate race, in 1972. He later reflected on Kennedy helping him after the death of his wife and daughter. girl in a car accident shortly after the election.

“Your family was there for me,” he told Caroline Kennedy, the late president’s daughter who introduced Biden. “And I will never forget it.”

About Hector Hedgepeth

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