Vice President Joe Biden on Wednesday toured a lab at Duke University, where he told doctors that the national cancer “moonshot” aims to double the rate of progress on research and treatment “and to eventually end cancer as we know it.”
During a roundtable discussion, Biden met with doctors, public health researchers, patient families and health care professionals from Duke and UNC-Chapel Hill. Participants talked about the need to collaborate, increase patient access to clinical trials and deploy data science to understand the devastating disease.
Biden said he was not naïve enough to think that all cancers can be cured but pointed out there’s a growing consensus among scientists that “we really are at an inflection point.”
“The science is ready, it seems to me,” Biden said. “Much more has to be done, but I believe we can make much faster progress.”
It will require more money but also more sharing of information, collaboration and breaking down of silos, he said. And that is easier than it sounds, with profits and patents in the balance. In the competitive research environment, scientists race one another for discoveries, and drug companies compete for blockbuster treatments.
In the State of the Union address last month, President Barack Obama announced that Biden would lead a federal task force on the initiative, which has been dubbed “moonshot,” likened to the United States putting a man on the moon in the 1960s.
Dr. Michael Kastan, executive director of the Duke Cancer Institute, said cancer is not one disease but hundreds, and there are many approaches to treatment.
“Cancer is at a precipice,” Kastan said. “We’ve learned so much about what a cancer cell is in the last 40 years, and developed so many new therapies, that we’re now poised to take those therapies to change outcomes in patients – to make therapies more effective and less toxic.”
Biden got a look at a Duke lab where research is untangling the secrets of DNA. He visited the lab of Paul Modrich, professor of biochemistry and co-winner of the 2015 Nobel Prize in chemistry.
The work this guy has done has been absolutely mind-blowing.
Vice President Joe Biden, about Duke University’s Paul Modrich
“The work this guy has done has been absolutely mind-blowing,” Biden said of Modrich, whose research has led to the understanding of the way DNA repairs itself.
He also met with Duke doctors involved in brain tumor research, including Dr. Matthias Gromeier, associate professor of neurosurgery. Gromeier’s work in cancer immunotherapy has gained international attention, and his use of genetically modified poliovirus has shown promise in treating brain tumors in a clinical trial.
“I’m very familiar with your work,” said Biden, whose son, Beau, died last year of a brain tumor.
In many ways, the quest is personal for Biden, who said he would be involved in it for the rest of his life. He mentioned his son several times during the day.
He also met privately with a patient, Stephanie Lipscomb, whose brain tumor was treated successfully with injections of poliovirus. Biden pointed to Lipscomb, who sat in the audience, and commented that she looked “as healthy as can be.”
The United States will spend an additional $195 million on cancer programs and research in the current fiscal year, and Obama’s budget for 2017 proposes $755 million more for the effort.
Beyond the money, there are other things the government can do, doctors told Biden on Wednesday.
Dr. Shelley Hwang, chief of breast surgery at Duke, said data needs to be standardized so that it can be shared and used effectively. A national effort a decade ago didn’t gain traction, she said.
“That is a role that the federal government can take,” Hwang said. “A lot of us would welcome leadership in that realm.”
Discussion also centered on expanding patients’ access to clinical trials to test new drugs and treatment.
“We live in a country where I don’t think there should be 30 cancer patients waiting in line to get in to a clinical trial,” said Dr. Kimberly Blackwell, professor of medicine at Duke.
The discussion at Duke also focused on issues of health disparities and the role of nurses in cancer care.
Stephanie Wheeler, professor of the Gillings School of Global Public Health at UNC, described a cancer surveillance system developed at UNC that married data from a statewide cancer registry, Medicare, Medicaid, insurance claims and geospatial data that help map hotspots.
Biden said he wanted to talk with Wheeler further about that and joked, “I deserve a Nobel Prize for bringing Duke and North Carolina together.”
He also promised to help clear the way of bureaucratic hurdles at the federal level and agreed that trials should be expanded.
Kastan said less than 5 percent of adult patients go into clinical trials. “We need to find ways to increase that number so that we can more efficiently and effectively test all the new therapies that are coming down the pike,” he said.
There are financial and regulatory challenges to doing that, Kastan said, as well as the need to educate patients.
Biden said he’s not looking for incremental change. “What we’re trying to do is end up with a quantum leap in the path to a cure.”