At Duke, Biden launches a ‘moonshot’ to beat cancer


Vice President Joe Biden is no stranger to tragedy. Shortly before he took office as a United States senator, his wife and child were killed in a car wreck. Last year, his son Beau Biden, an up-and-coming political star, died of a brain tumor.

But if Biden has been anything in more than 40 years in public life, he has been an example of and advocate for hope. And in that capacity, he came this week to Duke University and its medical complex to push for President Obama’s proposed “moonshot” on cancer research, keyed by $775 million in his 2017 budget for cancer programs and that research.

Of a larger investment in research than ever before, Biden said, “The science is ready, it seems to me. Much more has to be done, but I believe we can make much faster progress.”

Some cancers are being beaten, others are the focus of treatments that prolong life far beyond previous expectations. New treatments, such as the polio virus injections that helped one Duke patient be successfully treated for a brain tumor, are in development around the country.

One Duke doctor used Biden’s visit to lobby for something very important: the standardizing of data, to enable it to be used by universities across the country and the world. Dr. Shelley Hwang said, rightly, “That is a role that the federal government can take.”

Another Duke doctor, Dr. Kimberly Blackwell, wants more patients to have access to clinical trials. “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.” Biden was in tune, saying he’d work to smooth the bureaucracy and help to expand some trials.

The vice president believes the time has come for the country to take on cancer as it took on the challenge of reaching the moon. He said, “What we’re trying to do is end up with a quantum leap in the path to a cure.”

One challenge ahead is persuading Congress to make this proposal a priority and to put aside ongoing differences with the president by Republicans in Congress. Cancer is not partisan, after all. And the time is right, the stage is set for that “quantum leap.”

As Dr. Michael Kastan, head of the Duke Cancer Institute said, “Cancer is at a precipice. 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.”

There should be no hesitation to pursue what Duke and the University of North Carolina research team, for that matter, are pursuing. Money and politics must not stand in the way.