U.S. Vice President Joe Biden on Monday toured a Fred Hutch research lab and discussed the White House’s $1 billion cancer “moonshot” effort aimed at speeding up science fast enough to make a decade’s progress in five years.
U.S. Vice President Joe Biden brought his cancer “moonshot” listening tour to Seattle on Monday, holding a roundtable discussion with the region’s top scientists at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center.
The meeting, which was added to a previously scheduled fundraising visit for U.S. Sen. Patty Murray, included a tour of the lab of Fred Hutch’s Dr. Stan Riddell, whose latest work includes promising progress on immunotherapy, which activates a patient’s own immune system to fight the disease.
“We’re at a place, in my view, where science and medicine have not been before and it’s offering immense hope,” Biden said about cancer research.
The Fred Hutch event was Biden’s fifth roundtable talk since President Obama tapped him during a final State of the Union address in January to lead a White House Cancer Moonshot Task Force, a $1 billion effort to speed up cancer research fast enough to make a decade’s worth of progress in the next five years.
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Monday’s meeting included a discussion with eight of the region’s top cancer experts and a Seattle patient, Bard Richmond, 65, who was diagnosed with an aggressive form of multiple myeloma in 2014 and underwent a stem-cell transplant at Seattle Cancer Care Alliance (SCCA) this past year.
Others joining the talk included Dr. Gary Gilliland, Fred Hutch president; Riddell; Dr. Hy Levitsky, of Juno Therapeutics; Dr. Julie Park, of Seattle Children’s; Mary-Claire King, of the University of Washington; Dr. Jeffery Ward, representing community oncologists; Angelique Richard of SCCA; and Dr. Leroy Hood, of the Institute for Systems Biology.
The death last year of Biden’s son, Beau Biden, from brain cancer at age 46 galvanized the new effort and underscored the personal toll from the disease. Biden proposed the plan this past fall, as he announced he would not run for president.
“I believe we need a moonshot in this country to cure cancer,” he said.
Last week, Biden named Greg Simon, 64, a New York health-care lawyer with a history of leukemia, as the executive director of the task force.
Simon was diagnosed in June 2014 with chronic lymphocytic leukemia, a slow-growing blood and bone-marrow disease, and completed his first round of chemotherapy six months ago, according to The New York Times.
The moonshot goals include increasing data sharing among cancer scientists, boosting research into early cancer detection and developing a better understanding of the genetic underpinnings of the disease, the White House has said.
Biden called for more cooperation among scientists and told those present that he planned to ask them each about one or two goals they’d like him to pursue — and one or two obstacles to those goals. He also urged wider use of big data to help patients and researchers alike.
“The problem is that data is trapped in silos,” Biden said.
In his brief tour of Riddell’s lab, Biden was introduced to the group’s dramatic progress with adoptive T-cell therapy, in which a patient’s T cells are reprogrammed to eradicate cancer. T cells, a type of white blood cells, play a crucial role in the immune system.
In one arm of an ongoing trial of patients with acute lymphoblastic leukemia, 27 of 29 patients showed no trace of cancer in their bone marrow after the treatments. And 19 of 30 Non-Hodgkin lymphoma patients had partial or complete response.
Riddell announced the results at a recent meeting of American Association for the Advancement of Science to wide acclaim. But the results are still preliminary and subject to peer review. A paper is pending, Hutch officials said.
Despite such progress, the description of a “moonshot” effort has been met with skepticism from some scientists, who say the idea that cancer can be eradicated in one breakthrough move similar to a moon landing is both outdated and unrealistic.
“I’m sure Vice President Biden means well, but I think that ‘moonshot language’ creates a sense of false hope,” said Dr. Steven Woloshin, a professor of medicine at Dartmouth College who focuses on enhancing the quality of medical communication to the public, doctors, patients and policymakers.
“It gives the unrealistic impression that a cure for cancer is just on the horizon — one big push away,” Woloshin said.
Cancer is not a single disease; it is many. And talking about a single cure does a disservice to the 1.6 million people expected to be diagnosed with cancer this year and the nearly 600,000 who will die from it, according to the American Cancer Society.
“Moonshot also takes the focus off the tremendous need to (find) help for people who are suffering now — access to the best available treatments, creating more compassionate ways to deliver care, providing emotional and social support,” Woloshin added.
Biden seemed to acknowledged the criticism:
“I wish we hadn’t named it the moonshot because it’s been used before,” he said. “Things have changed drastically.”