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Biden at the Vatican calls for help in cancer battle

Vice President Biden in a speech at the Vatican said the race to cure cancer was at an "inflection point." (AP Photo/Molly Riley, File)

VATICAN — Vice President Biden called for global help Friday in the battle against cancer in a speech here that mixed science with the personal experience of having lost a son last year to the disease.

“In a sense I might be the least qualified person to speak here today,” said Biden, who was speaking at the Vatican’s Third International Regenerative Medicine Conference. “But I’ve been on the other end of the need.”

The death of Biden’s eldest son, Beau, led him to form and lead a new White House Cancer Moonshot Task Force, which President Obama announced earlier this year during his State of the Union address. The Obama administration has proposed spending an additional $1 billion on cancer research this year and in in 2017.

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Pope Francis delivered brief remarks after Biden and called on the medical establishment to help those  suffering from rare cancers. “These patients are not often given sufficient attention because investing in them is not expected to generate sufficient economic return,” the pope said. He decried an “economy of exclusion” in the treatment of cancer in which “profit prevails over human life.”

Biden said researchers need to share more of their work and “immediately” take down pay walls that prevent rapid collaboration. “Why do you wait?” he asked, his voice rising. “What is your rationale?”

And he expressed hope that the advent of supercomputers capable of processing data at rates that until recently were inconceivable has put researchers on the cusp of new discoveries.

The vice president said that Obama had initially balked at calling his effort a “moonshot,” saying the name sounded too ambitious and would draw ridicule. “The president almost wishes we hadn’t used the word,” Biden said.

But he said that the ambitious effort had already drawn interest from leaders around the world, such as the United Arab Emirates, Israel and Japan, who wanted to help. “They sense exactly what we sense — the enormous possibilities,” he said.

Biden described the moonshot in personal times, recalling those moments when he was “clinging to hope” that a new experimental treatment would save his son. “You learn and become an expert when someone you adore is in dangerous difficulty,” he said.

He described his son Beau as “that person who shares your soul.”