NEW ORLEANS (GenomeWeb) – As the keynote speaker for the closing plenary session of the American Association for Cancer Research annual meeting on Wednesday, Vice President Joe Biden lauded the work of the assembled researchers, spoke about what he's heard from researchers and government officials around the world, and laid out six suggestions for ways to change the way cancer research is funded, shared, and disseminated.
Biden started by recounting all he's learned about cancer and cancer research since his son Beau Biden was diagnosed with glioblastoma, and since President Obama appointed him to lead the so-called Cancer Moonshot program in January.
"Only in the last four or five years has there been increased interdisciplinary cooperation. Only recently have various disciplines begun to work with one another," Biden said. "As recently as five years ago, oncologists weren't working with immunologists, virologists, geneticists, chemical engineers, biological engineers. That's all changed, and you've given humanity a sense of hope."
He added that along with hope, the public has begun to have expectations of what can be done to save lives. And even in a time of the most "dysfunctional" government he's ever seen, the vice president said both Democrats and Republicans are firm in their support of the Moonshot program and advancing the cause of cancer research, prevention, and treatment. "If we can accomplish the goal that we've set, we'll give new hope and expectations to Americans," Biden said. "My job and commitment is to bring together all the human, financial, and knowledge resources we have in the world to seize this moment, to make decades worth of progress in five years."
To make that happen, Biden said he has been working to coordinate government agencies with the private sector and academia, and is traveling the US and world to pool as many resources as possible together. He recounted trips he recently took to the United Arab Emirates and Israel, where leaders of both countries asked how they could contribute to the effort. He also made mention of the recent nuclear security summit, where some leaders asked about the cancer program and whether they could sign memoranda of understanding with the US to help where they can.
"I've met coalitions of cancer organizations who are attempting to aggregate cancer tissue genomics, patient medical records, family histories, and lifestyles in order to be able to take advantage of the supercomputing power we have today to find answers that might take you a decade or more to find," Biden said, adding that Secretary of Energy Ernest Moniz has told him the US is on the verge of supercomputing power that would allow for a billion billion calculations per second in our national labs.
He acknowledged the growing need for "team science and increased collaboration," and new approaches for clinical trial design as combination therapies become the norm for cancer treatment.
Biden also said that the US government's 2017 budget, which he believes will be passed, includes a request for another $800 million for cancer research. The money is meant for several agencies, including $75 million for the US Food and Drug Administration and $600 million for the National Cancer Institute for research on early detection, cancer vaccines, immunotherapy, combination therapies, genomics, data sharing, and pediatric cancer research.
But, other than money, Biden said, it will take a realignment of research incentives to make the most of the knowledge available. He offered six suggestions that he's heard from various people in his recent talks with researchers around the country.
First, there needs to be an emphasis on data sharing. Researchers are not incentivized right now to share data, but that must change in order to make advances, he said. Second, patients need to be involved in clinical trial design and focus, in order to get them into the process earlier and make them aware of what's available.
Third, he said young scientists must be allowed to do science and get grants for what they want to do rather than repeating work that has already been done, and this could be made easier with a more efficient and less time-consuming process for obtaining grants.
Why do government grants take multiple submissions and more than a year for an answer, he asked, adding, "We slow down our best young minds by making them spend years and years in the lab before they can get their own grants. And when they do, they spend a third of their time writing a grant that takes months to be approved and awarded. It's like asking Derek Jeter to take several years off to sell bonds to build Yankee Stadium."
Fourth, Biden said, we must measure progress in cancer research by looking at improvements in patient outcomes, not just publications. Fifth, he added, "scores of your colleagues have said [we need to] make publications more readily available." And finally, the work of verifying results must be rewarded in order to move research forward.
Biden closed by telling the assembled researchers that he needs their input, and that although the current system of research has produced enormous successes, it won't be enough to get to the goal of curing cancer.
"I hope you know you're one of the most valuable resources this country has," Biden said. "So ask your institutions, your colleagues, your mentors, your administrators, how can we move your ideas forward faster in the interest of patients? I promise you that I will, and I have the authority to put the federal government in a position where it is total value added and doesn't get in your way. You've got to tell me how."