Channeling JFK on Boston visit, Biden breathes new life into ‘moonshot’ cancer

Biden’s speech echoed Kennedy’s commitment to scientific advancement and technological innovation that helped land a man on the moon in 1969.

On Monday, Biden detailed a vision that included vaccines that could prevent cancer and molecular “zip codes” that could get drugs and gene therapies to the right place. She envisioned a blood test that could detect cancer early and a single injection that could replace grueling chemotherapy treatments.

The commitment to fighting cancer is deeply personal for Biden, who lost his son Beau to brain cancer in 2015. He said that after Beau’s death, Ted Kennedy’s wife, Vicki Kennedy, wrote to him. She recalled that after John Kennedy’s death, Kennedy’s father wrote a letter in which he said that when a loved one’s life is cut short, one wonders what they will accomplish with the rest of theirs.

“For a lot of us, that’s what we’re trying to do. Live a life worthy of the loved ones we have lost and the loved ones we can save,” Biden said.

As part of the effort, Biden announced that Dr. Renee Wegrzyn, an executive with Boston’s Ginkgo Bioworks, will be the inaugural director of the Advanced Research Projects Agency for Health, which will focus on biomedical research and innovation.

While some in health care have expressed skepticism that cancer deaths can be reduced so dramatically in such a short time, Dr. Bill Hahn, executive vice president and chief operating officer of the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, said that there was no better time to double down on the moonshot initiative, given the discoveries of the human genome, the advent of immunotherapy, and the promise of advances in early detection.

Those efforts could tackle cancers that have been incredibly difficult to tackle, such as pancreatic cancer and brain tumors. In 2022, the American Cancer Society estimates that 1.9 million new cases of cancer will be diagnosed and 609,360 people will die from cancerous diseases.

“We are at an important time where a lot of progress has been made and there is a lot of potential, but there is a lot of hard work that will require more than the usual people involved. His vision is in line with what is needed,” said Hahn, after attending Biden’s speech.

Biden also signed an executive order to launch a National Biotechnology and Biomanufacturing Initiative, with the goal of boosting national biomanufacturing and identifying research and development needs in bioscience and biotechnology.

The President’s Cabinet on Cancer, formed seven months ago to help realize the vision of eradicating cancer as we know it, has also been busy, noting that the National Cancer Institute launched a national screening test for multiple cancers at through blood tests. Research is also moving forward with a program, created by the Department of Defense, to better understand the links between cancer and military toxic exposure.

The cancer moonshot was launched in early 2016, when President Barack Obama announced that Biden would lead the initiative. While out of office, Biden and his wife, Jill Biden, founded the Biden Cancer Initiative, a nonprofit organization that worked to coordinate new approaches to cancer medicine with multiple organizations.

In February, Biden relaunched the moonshot initiative with a new goal: reduce cancer death rates by 50% by 2047 and improve the experience for cancer patients and their families.

Biden’s cancer moonshot echoes the war on cancer launched by President Richard Nixon, who in December 1971 Address said that “the same kind of concentrated effort that split the atom and landed man on the moon must be used to defeat this dread disease.”

In October 2016, speaking at the Edward M. Kennedy Institute for the US Senate, next to the JFK Library, Biden commented that progress on Nixon’s vision was slow, but technological advances, many of which occurred in Boston, had changed the perspective. .

Kate Walsh, executive director of the Boston Medical Center, who also attended Monday’s speech., He said he was struck by the idea of ​​bringing the power of the US government behind the challenge, especially to focus on reducing disparities in care and outcomes. He also highlighted Biden’s comments that health systems needed to smooth the experience of families going through the disease.

Katie Murphy, president of the Massachusetts Nurses Association and a nurse at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, said the focus on cancer would drive progress in other diseases.

Karen Knudsen, executive director of the American Cancer Society, said she appreciated that Biden’s focus was more than just research and treatments, but also screening and broader ongoing care.

Biden’s speech was also well attended by many in Boston politics, including US Secretary of Labor Martin J. Walsh, a childhood cancer survivor; US representatives Stephen Lynch, Ayanna Pressley, Lori Trahan and Jake Auchincloss; State Senate President Karen Spilka; and Boston Mayor Michelle Wu.

As he laid out a broad vision, Biden met with those facing cancer most immediately. Dr. Daphne Haas-Kogan, chair of the Department of Radiation Oncology at Dana-Farber Brigham Cancer Center, said she saw her own patient, who is battling brain cancer, sitting across from her. She had red eyes and the patient told her he said he had cried on Biden’s shoulder.

“He handed her his scarf and she was holding on to it with all her might, saying, ‘This will be my good luck charm,'” Haas-Kogan said. “To think that such an important leader touched her in such a personal way brought tears to my eyes. It was really something.”


Jessica Bartlett can be reached at jessica.bartlett@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @ByJessBartlett.

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