A moon shot to cure cancer might seem an impossible dream even for a generation shaped by JFK’s vision. Yet that is the metaphor that Vice President Biden is embracing as he puts the pieces in place to carry out the mission given him by the president for their final year in office.
There couldn’t be a more welcome assignment for Biden, the father who lost his 46-year-old son to brain cancer last year, and for Biden the public servant, who lamented when he withdrew from the presidential race that he had hoped to be the president who cured cancer.
In the run-up to that decision, Biden’s friend and longtime aide, former Senator Ted Kaufman, asked him this core question: What is it you would want to do as president? One of the issues that came up was cancer. Kaufman told The Daily Beast that when Beau Biden was first diagnosed in 2013, the vice president reacted “like any parent was obsessed with trying to help his son through this. He talked to dozens of people, anybody who could help… and over that period he accumulated a lot of knowledge about the present state of play around cancer in this country.”
Biden says a cancer moon shot is much bigger than his son, but where Beau’s illness was the driving force, it was all that time spent with doctors, their assurances of hope, their confidence that better treatments were on the horizon, that influenced Biden. “In constant meetings with doctors, he saw the much bigger scope of what could be done,” Kaufman says. “He really felt if Beau lives another six months, even that, he felt things could be better—months not years.”
This holding out of hope, perhaps false hope, is familiar to anyone who has navigated the world of cancer. The late Steve Jobs talked of “making it to the next lily pad” in his effort to outdistance the disease. My late husband fought metastatic kidney cancer for almost five years before it spread to his brain and killed him. The clinical trials he took part in showed promise based on animal testing, and he marveled at the many mice out there who were cured; humans, not so much.
Tom died almost 11 years ago, and he was on the cutting edge then of immunotherapy. He called it “shake and bake” because the drugs that marshaled his immune system to fight the cancer caused flu-like symptoms with bone-racking chills and then fevers as high as 105 degrees. He often said the treatment felt worse than the disease.
A lot of progress has been made in this area even in the last five years, and Biden says he’s looking for “quantum leaps.” He believes we’re on the precipice of real breakthroughs in immunotherapy and genomics that will take cancer treatment far beyond the blunt instruments of chemotherapy and radiation therapy.
At Davos last week, Biden met with cancer experts from around the world and said, “Our goal is to make a decade’s worth of advances in five years instead of 10 and eventually end cancer as we know it. We’re not looking for incremental changes. I’m looking for quantum leaps.” National Institutes of Health Director Francis Collins, who credits Biden with working with Congress to increase the NIH budget to the highest it’s been in a decade, called the vice president “delightfully unplugged” as he made his cancer moon shot center stage at the Davos gathering of global leaders.
In the weeks since President Obama tapped him to lead this new cancer initiative, Biden has met with all the major cancer groups, some two dozen, and 200 individuals that Kaufman describes as a “who’s who in cancer.” A formal “Presidential Memorandum” with Kennedy-era moon shot language will establish a task force of federal agencies and departments from the NIH to the Pentagon, and once that is complete, Biden will convene a meeting at the White House to establish an agenda for the year ahead “and the measurables,” says press secretary Meghan Dubyak.
At a roundtable at the University of Pennsylvania Cancer Center, Biden said he doesn’t want anyone to think he’s “naïve” in setting such a sweeping goal as curing cancer. He knows it can’t be done overnight, but he insists that tremendous leaps can be made by marshaling the resources of the federal government and leveraging what’s already happening in the private sector. I for one wouldn’t bet against him. Cancer research has never had a cheerleader as high-profile and as committed as Biden. It wasn’t that long ago that HIV-AIDS was a death sentence. Can the same great leap forward occur for cancer? A lot of smart people are saying it could.
For something like this, the politics are irrelevant. Everyone wishes Biden well. There are no hidden agendas. “What he’s doing is primarily to honor his son, but also to do something truly important, to make sure the next Beau doesn’t have to die prematurely,” says Jonah Blank, who worked for Biden on his Senate staff and is now with the Rand Corporation. “Will it happen in the next year? Probably not. The next five or 10? Maybe, as a longshot. But Biden might well have another 20 years of civic contributions, and wouldn’t that be a great legacy?”
As a society, we pay more attention to former presidents than former vice presidents, but that won’t deter Biden. “I plan on doing this the rest of my life,” he enthused when talking to cancer researchers at the University of Pennsylvania’s Cancer Center. And when the breakthrough happens, the headline will write itself: “Big f---ing deal.”