The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Biden to cancer researchers: How can we move faster on this?

Beau Biden, above, died of brain cancer last year. His father, Vice President Biden, is calling for a stepped-up effort against the disease. (Paul Sancya/AP)

NEW ORLEANS — Vice President Biden called on the nation's leading cancer researchers to accelerate progress in the fight against the disease by sharply boosting collaborations and data sharing and by giving him advice on how to make the federal government a forceful ally in the anti-cancer effort.

"I have the authority to do everything I can to put the federal government in a position where it's total value-added and it doesn't get in your way," the vice president told thousands of scientists gathered at the annual conference of the American Association for Cancer Research. "But you have to tell me how."

Biden, whose son Beau died of cancer last spring, is leading the Obama administration's "cancer moonshot" initiative, which is aimed at producing a decade's worth of progress against cancer in five years. "Sometimes I find myself going to bed overwhelmed by how can I meet my responsibility," he said. "I need your help; I need honest evaluations on the kind of change that can be made."

Immunotherapy making progress against broader range of cancers

But Biden also chided the researchers for what he called "cancer politics," which he said results in a lack of cooperation among researchers. Too often, he said, important discoveries remain inaccessible to many in the field because key papers are published behind the paywalls of expensive medical journals. "Tell me how this is moving the process along," he said.

He also called on academic and government researchers to find ways to involve patients earlier in planning clinical trials, and to find ways to hand out grants much more quickly and with less red tape. The vice president said that in recent months he has visited a dozen cancer centers to meet with cancer experts and patients, and talked to several foreign leaders who want to work with the United States on the cancer effort.

Chad Ellis, associate director of the UNC Lineberger Comprehensive Cancer Center, praised Biden's emphasis on domestic and international collaboration. "You need buy-in from individuals and institutions to make this work," Ellis said, adding that "more cooperation across the globe will help our efforts and theirs."

Survival rates sharply higher among advanced-melanoma patients who got immunotherapy

Biden was introduced by his wife, Jill Biden, who told the researchers that cancer "is personal for us." Besides their son Beau, several other members of her family have had cancer, she said.

The meeting Biden addressed drew 20,000 researchers to New Orleans this week to discuss developments on everything from advances in immunotherapy and liquid biopsies to the vexing problem of treatment-resistant tumors.

Throughout the week, some of the researchers expressed concern about the administration's use of the word "moonshot" to describe its anti-cancer campaign, saying it doesn't capture the difficult nature of the questions that need to be answered. "Cancer is still largely a scientific challenge, and when people use engineering language, it can create wildly unrealistic expectations," William Kaelin Jr., professor of medicine at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston, said during a panel discussion.

Similarly, he said, while collaboration among researchers is critical, it's just as important to encourage scientists who think outside of the box to pursue their own interests even if they seem quixotic. "In science, sometimes you want people going in 10 different directions," Kaelin said.

The speech comes at a time of rising excitement about immunotherapy, which marshals the body's defenses to attack cancer. But researchers cautioned that many questions remain, including how long the beneficial effects of immunotherapy might last and how to make it effective for more than a minority of patients in any particular study.

"This is version 1.0," said George Demetri, director of the Ludwig Center at Dana-Farber/Harvard Cancer Center. "The question is: What can we do to speed this up?"

Read more:

These oral bacteria have been tied to pancreatic cancer

The new "Manhattan Project" against cancer

Avoiding the "financial toxicity" of cancer care