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Biden frames defeat of cancer as unifying goal

While announcing the inaugural director of a new health agency, the president updated Americans on actions his administration is taking to combat cancer, the second leading cause of death in the U.S.

BOSTON (CN) — Painting the defeat of cancer as a bipartisan goal both Republicans and Democrats can get behind, President Joe Biden announced Monday his administration’s movement on an initiative that aims to halve U.S. deaths from the disease over the next 25 years.

Dubbed the “cancer moonshot” initiative, Biden spoke from the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum in Boston on the 60th anniversary of a speech by Kennedy where he announced what then seemed like a far-fetched goal — putting a man on the moon. 

“I believe we can usher in the same unwillingness to postpone, the same national purpose, and will to serve, to organize, and measure the best of our energies and skills, to end cancer as we know it,” Biden said Monday. 

While the death rate from cancer has fallen more than 25% in the last quarter-century, the disease is still the No. 2 cause of death in America, second only to heart disease.

The initiative was strategically named to hearken back to the ambitious feat and success of the 1969 moon landing when it was launched under the Obama administration. 

“In then choosing to go to the moon, President Kennedy said America was doing so not because it was easy, but because it was hard. Because the goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills. Because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept. One we are unwilling to postpone and one which we intend to win,” Biden said of the parallels Monday.

“Today, I'm setting a long term goal for the cancer moonshot to rally American ingenuity, to engage like we did to reach the moon, that actually cures cancers once and for all,” he continued.

Defeating cancer is personal to Biden, whose oldest son Beau died of brain cancer in 2015 at the age of 46. Vice President Kamala Harris has also lost a close loved one to cancer. Her mother was a breast cancer researcher who died from colon cancer in 2009.

Breathing new life into the moonshot program, Biden announced earlier this year that the initiative's next phase will include a multifaceted approach to lowering the death rate and improving the quality of treatment for cancer patients, with an emphasis on racial equity in cancer care, a push for HPV vaccinations to reduce cervical cancer rates and a heavy emphasis on early cancer screenings. 

The president said the program aims to bolster communication between researchers, doctors and patients, to make information on clinical trials, treatment options and resources accessible to cancer patients and their families who often feel lost post-diagnosis.

During his address Monday, Biden announced that his science adviser Renee Wegrzyn will now hold the title of inaugural director of the Advanced Research Projects Agency for Health, a federal arm his administration created in March in a bipartisan effort designed to expedite research on treatments for cancer as well as other diseases including Alzheimer's.

In coordination with his moonshot speech, Biden also signed an executive order Monday launching a national biotechnology and biomanufacturing initiative that will allow the country to create cutting-edge biotechnologies and other innovations needed to fight cancer within American borders. The initiative will also expand the Cancer Research Data Ecosystem, a national database that encourages data sharing surrounding cancer care and treatments for patients.

“Imagine the possibilities: vaccines that could prevent cancer, like there is for HPV. Imagine molecular zip codes that could deliver drugs and gene therapy precisely to the right tissues. Imagine a simple blood test during an annual physical that could detect cancer early,” Biden said.

He also lamented that there’s much research on cancer yet to be done, which would be greatly enhanced with more coordination between providers and researchers.

“We know too little about why treatments work for some patients but doesn’t work for different patients with the same disease. We still lack strategies for developing treatments for some cancers like childhood cancers. We don't do enough to help patients and families navigate the cancer care system,” Biden said.

Biden also shared other progress Monday that has been made by his newly created Cancer Cabinet advisory group, including lowering prices for cancer drugs through the Inflation Reduction Act, the launch of a cancer trial through the National Cancer Institute that hopes to identify effective blood tests for the detection of various cancers and the launch of a new research grant opportunity through the National Cancer Institute.

The White House Office of Science and Technology policy has also issued guidance to make federally funded cancer research immediately available to the American public for free. 

In addition, the White House noted Monday that the Department of Defense has created a research program to understand military toxic exposure. Biden has said previously that he believes his son’s cancer could have been linked to burn pits Beau came in contact with when he was deployed in Iraq.

The program will use the Pentagon's serum repository, which contains blood samples for all service members, as well as its tumor registry that tracks active cancer cases while on duty, among other databases, to better understand the development of cancer in military members.

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