An impatient Vice President Biden threatened Wednesday to cut funding to research facilities that fail to report clinical-trial results quickly enough and took a swipe at drug companies that jack up the prices of cancer drugs.
At an all-day cancer summit he convened at Howard University in Washington, Biden showed flashes of anger as he expressed concern that many medical institutions that receive millions of dollars in government grants weren't reporting results to a publicly accessible database in a timely fashion.
"Doc, I'm going to find out if it's true," he said. "And if it's true, I'm gong to cut funding. That's a promise."
Biden addressed the hundreds of researchers, oncologists, data experts, and patients who gathered for lengthy brain-storming sessions at Howard. Thousands of people attended 270 regional summits around the country.
Biden has repeatedly prodded researchers to share data as he campaigns for his "cancer moonshot" effort. On Wednesday, he cited a December story by STAT, a Boston-based news organization, that found many top medical research institutions were too slow to report clinical-trial results or failed to ever do so.
Under a 2008 law, data is supposed to be submitted within a year of a trial's completion to ClinicalTrials.gov, which is run by the National Institutes of Health. But the law lacks enforcement mechanisms, NIH Director Francis Collins said following Biden's comments.
Collins said the administration is close to issuing a final rule with "teeth." Under the proposed rule, for example, NIH could withhold grants from institutions if their researchers didn't submit the required data. And drug companies could be fined $10,000 a day for not complying with the requirement to submit the results.
"This issue is going to be solved," he said.
Biden also tackled cancer-drug costs on Wednesday. He said that some prices “are astronomical,” with treatments costing far more now than they did when they came on the market years ago. “Tell me, tell me, tell me," he said. "What is the justification for that?”
The event at Howard University had the star power of emcee Carol Burnett, who introduced Biden. The actress said her “heart soared” when President Obama announced the moonshot effort earlier this year, and that she called Biden immediately to offer her help. She noted the “unfortunate bond” connecting them: Burnett’s daughter, Carrie, died 14 years ago of cancer at age 38, and Biden’s son Beau died of cancer last year.
While at times he expressed frustration about the pace of progress, Biden mostly cheered on his audience, who spent hours in closed-door meetings trying to develop new ways to attack the cancer problem. “Look at what you have done on HIV/AIDS,” he said. He added: “We’re on the cusp of breakthroughs that can get us there.”
Timothy Turnham, executive director of the Melanoma Research Foundation, said he was pleased that Biden talked about cancer-drug costs, a topic of growing concern as companies develop expensive combination therapies. Overall, he said it would be impossible to know the real impact of the meeting for at least another year, "when you see what gets done."
Before the meeting started, Biden's office announced dozens of new initiatives in the anti-effort cancer. Many involve novel collaborations between federal agencies; for example, the Department of Energy is teaming up with the Department of Veterans Affairs to use supercomputers to better understand the genesis of cancer. Other commitments include pledges from cancer charities to raise more money for research or from businesses and philanthropies to create lucrative prizes to award breakthroughs.
One of the efforts involves IBM's supercomputer Watson, known for its "Jeopardy" prowess, which is forming a partnership with the VA in a bid to revolutionize cancer care for veterans.
Under the IBM-VA partnership, Watson technology will be provided free for two years to the VA's precision-oncology program. The artificial intelligence system will analyze genomic information, pinpoint cancer-causing mutations and help identify potential treatments for as many as 10,000 patients.
David Shulkin, VA's undersecretary for health, said the health system currently uses groups of experts to analyze patients' sequenced genetic data and to figure out treatment plans. Using Watson, he said, clinicians will be able to treat many more patients, much more quickly. Physicians will feed tumor information to the computer and, "within a matter of hours, we will be able to get an individual interpretation that allows doctors to make the very best treatment decisions."
Other initiatives heralded as part of the summit Wednesday included a new program by the NIH, drug companies and philanthropies to invest in "pre-competitive" cancer research, in which the data would be shared, as well as a revamping of information about cancer clinical trials to make it easier for patients to find the right trials. In addition, changes will rejigger the way the Food and Drug Administration approves cancer-related products.