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Biden relaunches ‘cancer moonshot,’ aiming to reduce death rate by 50 percent in 25 years

The president’s new initiative promises improvements in prevention, detection and treatment of malignancies but does not contain new money for the effort

President Biden unveils the relaunch of the “cancer moonshot” on Feb. 2 at the White House. (Demetrius Freeman/The Washington Post)

President Biden, relaunching the “cancer moonshot” he headed during the Obama administration, announced Wednesday a multipronged effort to bolster prevention, screening and research, with the goal of reducing the death rate from the disease by 50 percent during the next 25 years.

The initiative, detailed by Biden at a White House gathering attended by about 100 cancer researchers, advocates and patients, and several members of Congress, represents a reboot of the project Biden and his wife, Jill, embraced after the death of their 46-year-old son, Beau, from brain cancer in 2015. Biden was vice president at the time.

The meeting Wednesday included emotional remarks by Jill Biden and Vice President Harris, whose mother was a cancer researcher and died of the disease.

“All those we lost, all those we miss, we can end cancer as we know it,” the president said. “This is a presidential White House priority. Period.”

The moonshot reboot features a long list of goals. The plan includes urging Americans to resume cancer screening, to make up for the millions of tests missed during the coronavirus pandemic — something that Jill Biden will be heavily involved in. It also calls for more equitable access to care — providing, for example, mobile screening to make it easier for patients to get the tests.

One thing the project doesn’t have: plans on how to pay for it.

“The goals are clear and important, but what’s not clear is how we get there,” said a cancer advocate who spoke on the condition of anonymity to avoid the ire of the White House. “Where are the dollars coming from?”

President Biden on Feb. 2 announced a multipronged effort to “end cancer as we know it.” (Video: The Washington Post)

Biden, in his comments, called on Congress to fund the effort, without providing a specific proposal. He also urged lawmakers to come up with money for his previously proposed advanced research agency to propel breakthrough medical treatments for cancer, diabetes, Alzheimer’s and other life-threatening diseases. Talks with lawmakers are underway on that issue.

Some cancer advocates said they would press the president to lay out concrete funding proposals in his State of the Union address, scheduled for March 1.

Congress provided $1.8 billion for the 2016 moonshot, parceled out over seven years. Two years of funding remains, totaling about $400 million. Cancer advocates worry that without a substantial infusion of money, cancer efforts, including those of the National Cancer Institute, could be hampered.

Margaret Foti, chief executive officer of the American Association for Cancer Research, praised the new cancer initiative, saying increased prevention and early detection efforts could greatly reduce death rates. But developing such improvements are costly, she added, saying, “We need to make sure there’s funding available to develop the new technologies and implement them.”

The cancer blueprint calls for a “cancer cabinet” of officials from across the federal government to coordinate activities, and for the speedup of emerging early detection approaches such as liquid biopsies to find multiple cancers through blood tests.

Biden, as vice president and as a 2020 presidential candidate, sometimes talked about curing cancer but has since reverted to more measured language. A year ago, during a visit to a coronavirus vaccine manufacturing facility in Michigan belonging to the drugmaker Pfizer, Biden said, “I want you to know that, once we beat covid, we’re going to do everything we can to end cancer as we know it.”

Biden on Wednesday called the central goal of his plan — to cut the mortality rate for cancer by 50 percent during the next 25 years — “ambitious but doable.” He noted that the death rate has fallen by about 25 percent in the past 20 years. That improvement in large part reflects a sharp reduction in tobacco use, but also the impact of new treatments, including immunotherapy and precision medicines.

Some cancer experts said the goal of a 50 percent reduction was too modest and called for a more aggressive target. But Deb Schrag, an oncologist at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, said the White House goal was appropriate. At some point, she argued, the decline in tobacco use might slow. At the same time, cancers related to obesity, such as uterine and pancreatic malignancies, are expected to continue to rise or, at best, plateau.

“We don’t have a good solution for obesity,” she said.

Some cancer experts welcomed what they called a more realistic view of the cancer challenge.

“We have had some disappointment with overly ambitious goals,” said Clifford A. Hudis, chief executive of the American Society of Clinical Oncology. “I think realism and maybe even over-delivering is better.”

But others said many of the steps described by the White House are not new and called for much more far-reaching efforts to defeat a disease that kills more than 600,000 Americans a year.

Biden’s announcement on moonshot 2.0 comes about a month after the 50th anniversary of the signing of the National Cancer Act by President Richard M. Nixon — the start of what has been dubbed the “war on cancer.” The act bolstered the National Cancer Institute’s authority to tackle cancer and created national networks to conduct clinical trials.

But as the Bidens discovered during their son’s illness, navigating the world of cancer as a patient or family member remains excruciating. As head of the moonshot initiative in 2016, Biden decried technical roadblocks in electronic health records that made it impossible for him to transfer his son’s records electronically from one hospital to another. On research, he repeatedly urged scientists to move faster and to collaborate more.

In a recap of activities on the original moonshot, the National Cancer Institute said it has supported hundreds of research projects, including expanding the use of immunotherapy, overcoming cancer’s resistance to treatments and finding new ways to treat pediatric cancer.

“The original moonshot demonstrated that it was possible to compress a decade’s worth of progress into a few short years,” said Ellen V. Sigal, chairperson and founder of Friends of Cancer Research, an advocacy group. “We can’t afford to not make that opportunity a reality again.”

After Biden’s second term as vice president ended, he and his wife created the Biden Cancer Initiative, a nonprofit organization that focused on issues such as boosting enrollment in clinical trials and improving treatments by community oncologists. The organization suspended operations in 2019, after the Bidens stepped away to concentrate on his presidential bid.

Last year, Biden asked Congress for $6.5 billion to fund the new research agency, dubbed the Advanced Research Projects Agency for Health, but the proposal sparked controversy over whether to base the agency at the National Institutes of Health or have it be a stand-alone entity. Biden on Wednesday described the agency as part of NIH.

Recently, Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.), chairwoman of the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, told The Washington Post that lawmakers are in talks with the White House about potentially including Biden’s proposal for the agency in their pandemic plan, which would help prepare for the next pandemic and which they hope to move forward any way they can.

“There’s still some basic decisions that need to be made, like where it’s housed, before we actually add the language,” Murray told The Post.

Rachel Roubein contributed to this report.