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

Biden’s speech echoed Kennedy’s commitment to scientific progress 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 deliver drugs and gene therapies to the right place. He envisioned a blood test that could detect cancer at an early stage and a single injection that could replace grueling chemotherapy treatments.

Commitment to the fight against cancer is deeply personal for Biden, who lost his son Beau to brain cancer in 2015. He noted that after Beau’s death, Ted Kennedy’s wife, Vicki Kennedy , had written to him. She recalled that after John Kennedy’s death, Kennedy’s father wrote a letter remarking that when a loved one’s life is cut short, it makes you wonder what you are going to accomplish with the rest of yours.

“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 that effort, Biden announced that Dr. Renee Wegrzyn, an executive at Boston’s Ginkgo Bioworks, will serve as the first director of the Advanced Research Projects Agency for Health, which will focus on biomedical research and innovation.

While some in the health field 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 Dana -Farber Cancer Institute, said 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 progress in early detection.

These efforts could address 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 take more than the people usually involved. His vision is exactly what is needed,” said Hahn, after attending Biden’s speech.

Biden also signed an executive order to launch a National Biotechnology and Biomanufacturing Initiative, aimed at stimulating national biomanufacturing and identifying research and development needs in bioscience and biotechnology.

The President’s Cancer Cabinet, formed seven months ago to help achieve a vision of eradicating cancer as we know it, has also been busy, noting that the National Cancer Institute has launched a nationwide trial to the detection of several cancers by blood tests. Research is also progressing with a program, created by the Ministry of Defence, to better understand the links between cancer and military exposure to toxic substances.

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 that worked to coordinate new approaches to cancer medicine with multiple organizations. .

In February, Biden relaunched the Moonshot Initiative with a new goal: to 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 took man to the moon should be directed towards conquering this dread disease”.

In October 2016, speaking at the Edward M. Kennedy Institute for the U.S. Senate, next to the JFK Library, Biden noted that progress on Nixon’s vision was slow but technological advancements, many of which are produced in Boston, had changed the outlook. .

Kate Walsh, chief executive of Boston Medical Center, who also attended Monday’s speech, said she was struck by the idea of ​​bringing the power of the US government behind the challenge, particularly to focus on reducing disparities in care and outcomes. She also noted Biden’s comments that health systems need to facilitate the experience of families going through illness.

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

Karen Knudsen, CEO of the American Cancer Society, said she appreciates Biden’s focus not just on research and treatment, but also on screenings and the broader continuum of care.

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

As he laid out a broad vision, Biden met those facing cancer more immediately. Dr. Daphne Haas-Kogan, chair of the radiation oncology department at the Dana-Farber Brigham Cancer Center, said she saw her own patient, who was battling brain cancer, sitting in front of her. Her eyes were red and the patient told her said she cried on Biden’s shoulder.

“He handed her his handkerchief and she clung to it for life, saying, ‘This will be my lucky charm,'” Haas-Kogan said. “To think that such an important leader touched her in such a personal way made me cry. It was really something.”


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

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