In visit with Penn scientists, Biden launches cancer 'moonshot'

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Vice President Joe Biden (left) listens to Dr. Amy Gutmann speak with Bruce L. Levine (center) and Carl H. June in the Abramson Cancer Center at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia.

Vice President Biden met with scientists at the University of Pennsylvania's Abramson Cancer Center Friday afternoon, officially launching his "moonshot" quest to cure cancer.

"We're on the cusp of phenomenal breakthroughs," Biden said, adding that President Obama would be issuing an executive order that would get every federal agency involved in the effort.

Biden asked the researchers to educate him on the challenges and possibilities of genome-based discoveries of the last several years, particularly a type of immunotherapy that has been pioneered by Penn researcher Carl H. June.

Just last month, researchers from Penn and Children's Hospital of Philadelphia, led by June, announced that an experimental cell therapy that boosts the immune system continues to produce long remissions in many patients with a variety of advanced blood cancers.

Francis Collins, the director of the National Institutes of Health, sat next to Biden on Friday in a room packed with researchers and news media. He said immunotherapy may be the area of cancer research that holds "the most remarkable promise." And he found a sound bite to describe June's enormously complex process: "taking immune cells and educating them."

Among those greeting Biden were a famous beneficiary of this therapy, 10-year-old Emily Whitehead, and her parents. The central Pennsylvania girl was near death in 2012 when researchers at CHOP engineered her immune system's T-cells to attack her leukemia cells. She has been declared cancer-free.

Biden said he was "not naive" about the likelihood of soon curing an entire group of diseases that have bedeviled humanity for centuries. Rather, he said, the intention of the "moonshot" is to accelerate progress already underway. He also asked the Penn researchers about the difficulties of sharing data and other obstacles that have frustrated scientists.

Biden started gathering information and ideas from researchers and organizations around the country after his son, former Delaware Attorney General Joseph R. "Beau" Biden 3d, died of brain cancer eight months ago at age 46.

Obama was a constant source of support during Beau Biden's illness, and the vice president has talked openly about it, citing his grief as a reason for not seeking the Democratic nomination for president.

Biden's advocacy has been cited as a reason for the bipartisan support of last month's budget agreement giving another $2 billion to the National Institutes of Health, the biggest increase in more than a decade. Still, experts say, funding is far short of what's needed.

Though politicians have been declaring war on cancer for decades, numerous researchers have said they are encouraged by this latest quest. Not because new cures are right around the corner, but because impassioned leadership and new funding could help realize the full potential of recent breakthroughs.

The huge federal investment in unraveling the human genome has led to targeted therapies and dramatically improved survival rates for some cancers over the last several years.

The moonshot analogy evokes memories of President John F. Kennedy's successful challenge to the nation to land a man on the moon, but the quest for cancer cures is already well along.

"We are really talking about the lunar landing now," said Arnold M. Baskies, a surgical oncologist in Moorestown and national vice chair of the American Cancer Society board.

Baskies credited President Richard M. Nixon for bringing national focus to what is often called his failed "War on Cancer." Back then, when much less was known about how vastly different many cancers are, it was expected to be a far simpler fight. The hardest parts may be still to come.

"There are so many complexities," said medical oncologist Wm. Kevin Kelly, associate director for clinical research at Thomas Jefferson University's Sidney Kimmel Cancer Center, in an interview before Biden's Penn visit.

Academic researchers and industry need to interact more openly and effectively, and more patients, particularly the less affluent, must be convinced to participate in clinical trials, he said.

That will take more than persuasion. On Wednesday, he said, he met with a patient who is in a clinical trial of prostate treatments but had just lost his job and his health insurance along with it. While pharmaceutical companies often donate products that are being tested, they don't cover members of a control group who get the "standard" treatment.

"He was paying $10, and now he is saying, 'I don't know if I can continue in this trial because it would cost me $9,000 a month,' " Kelly said.

Complex targeted therapies can be highly successful treatments for cancers that have long eluded surgeries, chemotherapy, and radiation. But more than medical technology is needed. About half of all cancer deaths could be prevented by behavioral changes such as quitting smoking, getting colonoscopies, immunizing against HPV, and better diet and exercise, Baskies said.

The cancer moonshot comes at an opportune time for both science and politics.

"It's a moment when the attention of Congress is focused there," Rep. Pat Meehan (R., Pa.) said Thursday. Biden, he said, "would be in the position to get attention and move the ball."

The vice president acknowledged that in a blog post late Tuesday. "The goal of this initiative - this 'Moonshot' - is to seize this moment. To accelerate our efforts to progress towards a cure, and to unleash new discoveries and breakthroughs for other deadly diseases."

Biden arrived at Penn on Friday accompanied by family - granddaughter Naomi Biden and son-in-law Howard Krein, an otolaryngologist and plastic surgeon at Thomas Jefferson University Hospitals. Biden told researchers that he has been "stunned" at the worldwide response to his mission.

"I plan on doing this the rest of my life," he said, drawing applause.

dsapatkin@phillynews.com

215-854-2617@DonSapatkin


In Sunday's Health Section

Precision medicine, such as the immunotherapy innovations Vice President Biden discussed at Penn on Friday, is transforming cancer diagnosis and treatment. Find out how these discoveries are already helping patients, and where their promise lies.