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Scientists Must Adapt to “Inflection Point” in Cancer Research, Says Biden

In the final plenary address of the 2018 AAAS Annual Meeting, Joe Biden called on the scientific community to embrace sharing and the federal government to double down on basic and applied research funding. | Professional Images Photography

Cancer research is at an “inflection point” where scientists must adapt to new ways of sharing data and putting patients at the center of care, said former Vice President Joseph R. Biden, Jr. at the 2018 AAAS Annual Meeting.

Biden likened the moment to a case of “punctuated equilibrium,” a concept borrowed from evolution studies that show how stable systems can change abruptly when challenged. He pointed to similar punctuations, noting President Richard Nixon’s 1971 War on Cancer that helped to establish the National Cancer Institute, the 1998 March on Washington that prodded a doubling of federal funding for the National Institutes of Health and the 2016 Cancer Moonshot Initiative that has begun to create public and private collaborations to fight cancer.

Now, recent advances in science — from genomic studies to new treatments such as immunotherapy and massive increases in computing power — have delivered a new punctuated state in medicine, he said.

Researchers must “move quickly” to change some of their practices to take advantage of this state “in order to be able to greatly advance … and accelerate the fight against cancer in particular,” he said.

In his plenary address, Biden drew from experiences with his son Beau, who died in 2015 from brain cancer, saying he found himself dismayed at the lack of collaboration among doctors and that chemical and biological engineers were “not in the game.”

“The breadth of the disciplines brought to bear” were limited, Biden said, “but it was changing. We are at an inflection point,” Biden said. “What I learned over the last few years is that there is so much opportunity to make things work so much better for patients than they do now.”

At the Biden Cancer Initiative, Biden is leading efforts to help patients get better access to cancer drugs that work during the first rounds of treatments, to easily share their own medical records and to have navigators ready to help them with their hospital journeys, he said.

Joe Biden greeted AAAS CEO Rush Holt, right, and Dr. Margaret Lancefield, Holt’s wife, after his plenary address. | Professional Images Photography

In other words, Biden noted, “we’re trying to create a cancer research enterprise and healthcare system that people think we already have.”

Biden offered examples of progress already made by the Cancer Moonshot in 2016, including the launch of over 80 collaborations and initiatives. Many of the collaborations are aimed at pooling genomic data to study the 204 distinct cancers and to collect blood biopsy data into easily accessible databases. “I’ve never met more dedicated people than the thousands of cancer specialists I’ve gotten to know and speak with, but they do not share well,” he said.

Another example, he said, is the National Cancer Institute’s drug formulary launched in 2017 that helps researchers quickly access commercial cancer drugs under development, to test promising drug combinations in clinical trials, an effort made possible after difficult issues of intellectual property, access and licensing were worked out.

At the Biden Cancer Initiative, the Biden Cancer Collaborative is bringing patients and advocacy groups together to solve seemingly simple problems like how to get childcare for parents undergoing chemotherapy, or how to navigate the multiple hospital departments involved in cancer care. “It’s frightening, it’s complicated, it’s serious and it’s neglected,” Biden said.

Biden asked researchers in the audience to “take a hard look at your practices. Ask yourself, ‘am I practicing in a way … that creates data silos and minimizes the role of patients and creates the wrong kinds of competition instead of the right kinds of competition?’”

Federal investment in basic research must continue at a high level to take advantage of the inflection point in cancer treatment, said Biden. “It is my overwhelming conviction that the United States government at this point of our development should be doubling and tripling down on the investment in pure research across the board.”

Health research may be one of the last bipartisan issues in Washington, D.C., he suggested. “Your political leadership may be broken because of a whole range of things but there is an overwhelming consensus on cancer but I would argue on pure science over all.”

Biden said it was “unacceptable that after a year in office our current president has no science adviser, no director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy.”

Although federal support for science is lagging, Biden quoted President John F. Kennedy speaking about the race to the moon, saying Americans are “unwilling to postpone” what needs to be done to accelerate cancer research. 

This is a time when some “see science as a threat either to their profit margins or their beliefs cannot stand up against the momentum,” Biden said, urging scientists to defend the advances made by the scientific enterprise.  “It’s time for us to get up and holler.”

[Associated image: Professional Images Photography]