BOSTON (AP) — President Joe Biden on Monday urged Americans to come together for a new “national purpose”—his administration’s effort to end cancer “as we know it.”
At the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Biden channeled JFK’s famed moonshot speech 60 years ago, likening the space race to his own effort and hoping it, too, would galvanize Americans.
“He established a national purpose that could rally the American people and a common cause,” Biden said of Kennedy’s space effort, adding that “we can usher in the same unwillingness to postpone.”
Biden wants to see the U.S. move closer towards the February target of cutting U.S. death rates by half in the next 25 year and drastically improving the quality of life for caregivers and patients. Experts say the objective is attainable—with adequate investments.
The president called his goal of developing treatments and therapeutics for cancers “bold, ambitious, and I might add, completely doable.”
Biden, in his speech, called for the private sector’s help to make drug prices more affordable and more data readily available. He outlined the medical breakthroughs that are possible through focused research and funding.
And he spoke of a new federally backed study that seeks evidence for using blood tests to screen against multiple cancers — a potential game-changer in diagnostic testing to dramatically improve early detection of cancers.
The White House Coordinator for this effort, Danielle Carnival, stated to The Associated Press, that there is great potential in the administration’s blood diagnostics study to identify cancers.
“One of the most promising technologies has been the development of blood tests that offer the promise of detecting multiple cancers in a single blood test and really imagining the impact that could have on our ability to detect cancer early and in a more equitable way,” Carnival said. “We think the best way to get us to the place where those are realized is to really test out the technologies we have today and see what works and what really has an impact on extending lives.”
The American Cancer Society predicts that 1.9million new cases of cancer will be identified by 2022 and that 609,360 will die from cancer. Cancer is the 2nd-leading cause of death in America, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Biden is personally involved in this issue, having lost Beau to brain cancer in 2015. After Beau’s death, Congress passed the 21st Century Cures Act, which dedicated $1.8 billion over seven years for cancer research and was signed into law in 2016 by President Barack Obama.
Obama designated Biden, then vice president, to run “mission control” on directing the cancer funds as a recognition of Biden’s grief as a parent and desire to do something about it. Biden wrote in his memoir “Promise Me, Dad” that he chose not to run for president in 2016 primarily because of Beau’s death.
Despite Biden’s attempts to hark back to Kennedy and his space program, the current initiative lacks that same level of budgetary support. The Apollo program garnered massive public investment—more than $20 billion, or more than $220 billion in 2022 dollars adjusted for inflation. Biden’s effort is far more modest and reliant on private sector investment.
Still, he’s tried to maintain momentum for investments in public health research, including championing the Advanced Research Projects Agency for Health, modeled after similar research and development initiatives benefiting the Pentagon and intelligence community.
On Monday, Biden announced Dr. Renee Wegrzyn as the inaugural director of ARPA-H, which has been given the task of studying treatments and potential cures for cancers, Alzheimer’s, diabetes and other diseases. He also announced a new National Cancer Institute scholars’ program to provide funding to early-career scientists studying treatments and cures for cancer, with a focus on underrepresented groups and those from diverse backgrounds.
Caroline Kennedy (daughter of JFK) was present with the president. She is currently the U.S. Ambassador to Australia. He reiterated his administration’s efforts later Monday at a fundraiser for the Democratic National Committee.
Experts agree it’s far too early to say whether these new blood tests for finding cancer in healthy people will have any effect on cancer deaths. They have not been shown to reduce cancer deaths. They do agree that it is worthwhile to set a high goal.
Carnival said the National Cancer Institute study was designed so that any promising diagnostic results could be swiftly put into widespread practice while the longer-term study—expected to last up to a decade—progresses. According to Carnival, the aim was to make it possible for cancer to be detected by routine bloodwork. In this way, patients could potentially save their lives and avoid more expensive and invasive procedures, such as colonoscopies.
Now scientists know cancer is not one disease. It’s a collection of many diseases which respond to different treatment options. Some cancers have biomarkers that can be targeted by existing drugs that will slow a tumor’s growth. More targets are still being discovered.
“How do we learn what therapies are effective in which subtypes of disease? That to me is oceanic,” said Donald A. Berry, a biostatistician at the University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center. “The possibilities are enormous. The challenges are enormous.”
Despite the challenges, he’s optimistic about cutting the cancer death rate in half over the next 25 years.
“We can get to that 50% goal by slowing the disease sufficiently across the various cancers without curing anybody,” Berry said. “If I were to bet on whether we will achieve this 50% reduction, I would bet yes.”
Dr. Crystal Denlinger is the chief scientist officer of The National Comprehensive Cancer Network (a network that includes elite centers for cancer).
To reduce cancer deaths, any efforts must focus on lung cancer. Lung cancer is the leading cause of cancer death, and this can be largely attributed to smokers. Lung cancer is responsible for more than 350 deaths each day in America.
The screening of lungs for cancer is improving. American Cancer Society claims that screening for lung cancer has contributed to a 32% drop in the rate of death from this disease. This is compared with its peak level in 1991, which was the highest year available.
However, only 5% of patients who are eligible for screening have been diagnosed with lung cancer.
In his speech, Biden highlighted provisions in the Democrats’ healthcare and climate change bill that the administration believes will lower out-of-pocket drug prices for some widely used cancer treatments. He also highlighted new protections for veterans who have been exposed to toxic burn pits. These will cover any potential cancer diagnosis.
Dr. Michael Hassett of Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston, said Biden’s goal to reduce cancer deaths could be met by following two parallel paths: one of discovery and the other making sure as many people as possible are reaping the advantages of existing therapies and preventive approaches.
“If we can address both aspects, both challenges, major advances are possible,” Hassett said.
Johnson was based in Seattle.
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