When a grieving father got up from his chair this week to console a crying woman whose father is fighting the same disease that took his own son just a few years ago, America got a lesson – in empathy and in science. The father is former Vice President Joe Biden, and he was consoling Meghan McCain, whose own father, Sen. John McCain, now has the devastating brain cancer known as glioblastoma.
The moment happened on live television, on The View Wednesday morning. The interview, part of Biden’s tour discussing his new memoir inspired by the life and death of his son, Beau, quickly became emotional for McCain. She choked up while talking about her father, and Biden immediately moved to a chair next to her, took her hand, and tried to comfort her. And then he spoke of courage and hope — not just for the McCains, but for people all over the world impacted by cancer.
That hope, he went on to explain, is bolstered by revolutionary scientific breakthroughs. One of these, which Biden mentioned, is CAR T-cell therapy. The treatment, developed here at Penn’s Abramson Cancer Center, involves an approach that would have seemed like science fiction just a decade ago: taking some of a patient’s immune cells, reprogramming them to hunt for cancer cells, and then putting them back into the body to fight off the disease. This summer, this approach became the first gene therapy ever approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, and is now being used to treat pediatric and young patients with acute lymphoblastic leukemia, or ALL.
Another therapy like it was soon approved to treat non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. At Penn and across the world, clinical trials continue to evaluate whether this approach will also help treat other types of cancer, including solid tumors like glioblastoma that have proven so tough to tackle. This new treatment represents only a fraction of the cutting edge science that is saving lives every day.
The video of Biden’s heartfelt conversation with McCain stopped me in my tracks, and I immediately reached out to the former vice president to let him know how much it touched and galvanized all of us at the Abramson Cancer Center. I have listened, replayed, and replayed again, keying in on every word. He captured the very essence of what we are all about here: Hope, real hope. I watched with a group of medical students, who immediately realized the power of the compassion, empathy, and expertise Biden showed – the same ingredients needed for every interaction with our patients.
The video of this deeply human moment quickly went viral, and the fact that it happened between two members of iconic political families who happen to be on opposite sides of the aisle captures a shared spirit we are all about here at Penn.
As Philadelphians, we are proud that our city is the birthplace of our Constitution and our great nation. As an institution, Penn is proud to put Philadelphia at the forefront of another revolution: what we call the ImmunoRevolution. We are doing everything possible to conquer cancer both here at Penn and with our partners across the country and around the world. In our labs, we’re developing tomorrow’s therapies today, providing a path to clinical trials that give our patients and their families fresh hope when standard treatments don’t measure up. Our researchers are unlocking clues from each element of cancer ecology, from secrets about how the disease grows, travels, and survives in the body to new tricks that unleash the power of the immune system to fight it. We’re putting all the pieces together to gain the upper hand in the fight against this disease.
However, the progress toward scientific discovery and breakthrough therapies will stall without sustained government and philanthropic funding and support. As Biden and McCain’s TV moment showed, cancer doesn’t side with any one political party. It has no bias, no ability to discriminate. At the midway point in the fiscal year, Congress has failed to enact a budget. Funding for the National Cancer Institute remains uncertain. This dysfunction leaves our scientists, our doctors, our patients, and their families in limbo. Will we have the money we need to make the next breakthrough?
We look to unity and strength, resolve and commitment – and even openness to vulnerability as we face challenges – to ensure that the progress we’re making continues.
The Biden and McCain families are showing us the way.
Robert H. Vonderheide, MD, DPhil, is the director of the Abramson Cancer Center of the University of Pennsylvania.