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Biden to tackle broad range of cancer issues, including drug prices, after leaving White House

Vice President Biden speaks during a signing ceremony for the 21st Century Cures Act in December in Washington. The bill will provide increased funding for medical research, including the cancer moonshot initiative led by Biden. (Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images)

Vice President Biden, who led the Obama administration’s “cancer moonshot” initiative, will create a nonprofit organization to grapple with a broad range of cancer issues, including the high cost of cancer drugs, he said in an interview Wednesday.

“I’m going to begin a national conversation and get Congress and advocacy groups in to make sure these treatments are accessible for everyone, including these vulnerable underserved populations, and that we have a more rational way of paying for them while promoting innovation,” Biden said.  

The new nonprofit group, Biden said, will focus on many “moonshot” issues, including the need to knock down “silos” in cancer research and share research data and medical records more widely, boosting participation in clinical trials, and finding new ways to improve treatment provided by community oncologists. He said he also wanted to work on reducing racial disparities in diagnosis and treatment.

The vice president, who lost his son, Beau, to brain cancer in May 2015, didn’t focus much on drug prices during his almost year-long sprint to accelerate progress against cancer. Part of the reason, he said, was that there were many other issues to pursue. But another reason was that Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton, a harsh critic of the pharmaceutical industry, had asked him to continue running the moonshot effort after he left the White House, and drug costs “was one of the points on the agenda,” he said.   

Now, Biden said, he is getting strong encouragement from throughout the cancer community to grapple with the pricing issue. “The researchers, the insurers, all of the major cancer centers . . . want me to pursue it.” He added that Greg Simon, executive director of the White House Moonshot Task Force, recently met with the pharmaceutical company officials. “They all realize they have a problem,” the vice president said.

In December, President-elect Donald Trump also spoke out against pharmaceutical-industry price hikes. “I'm going to bring down drug prices,” he told Time magazine.

The new cancer nonprofit organization, which Biden will head, will be based in either Wilmington, Del., or Washington, he said. Inside the White House, the organization is being referred to as the Biden Cancer Initiative, but the final name could be different. More details are expected in early February.

The organization won’t be affiliated with any particular cancer center — a decision designed to avoid the appearance of playing favorites among institutions that compete aggressively for grants, patients and top researchers. The group won’t make grants, though it will raise funds to support its own activities.

Biden cites progress, hurdles in final "moonshot" report to Obama

Talk of Biden’s post-White House plans has been circulating for some time. In September, he told the publication Stat that he would work on cancer issues for the rest of his life but didn’t provide details. In late December, the Cancer Letter, a trade publication, reported that he was planning to continue his moonshot work through a new institute or foundation and that he would work on foreign policy out of the University of Pennsylvania. On Tuesday, in a remark picked up by C-SPAN during the swearing-in ceremony for the Senate, Biden said he planned to “continue the cancer work” and would be “based out of Penn for foreign policy.”

In Wednesday’s interview, Biden said he would have posts at both Penn and the University of Delaware, his alma mater. Penn, he said, “wants me to advance their diplomatic profile around the world, and to work on policy and national security issues.” At Delaware, he will be working on domestic policy ranging from violence against women to the criminal justice system, he said. He declined to elaborate on the academic affiliations. 

The White House Cancer Moonshot initiative was announced by President Obama in his State of the Union address this year. The initiative generated some skepticism among scientists who said that beating cancer was far more complicated than putting a man on the moon, and required vast increases in funding and a much greater understanding of the basic biology of the disease.

Biden threatens funding cuts for researchers who don't report data

Biden pressed ahead, traveling the country to meet with researchers and clinicians and repeatedly calling, sometimes angrily, for greater data sharing and collaboration. In September, the National Cancer Institute's blue-ribbon panel proposed 10 ways to speed progress against the disease. And late last year, Congress passed the 21st Century Cures Act, which provides almost $5 billion in new funding for the National Institutes of Health, including $1.8 billion for cancer moonshot efforts.

In the waning days of the administration, he continues to work on the moonshot. On Friday, he will host a meeting of vendors of electronic health records, physicians and patient advocates on how to make it easier for individual patients to get access to their medical records so they can share them with other doctors or provide the data to researchers.

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