Roosevelt Institute | Cornell University

Obama and Biden's Moonshot: How They Plan to Cure Cancer

By Henry KanengiserPublished February 25, 2016

In what was supposed to be a casual, victory lap of a speech, President Obama made history during his State of the Union this year. Akin to President Kennedy's State of the Union declaration that America would put the first man on the moon, Mr. Obama made a similarly grandiose proposal to "make America the country that cures cancer once and for all."

As we all know, Cancer is not a simple disease to combat. Both President Obama and Vice President Biden have been met with criticism from skeptics who believe the disease is too complicated to take on as a whole. Despite this, Vice President Biden, who Mr. Obama put in charge of the push, has published an outline of his agenda delineating several policy areas that he plans to focus on. It is still too early to know exactly what specific methods are going to be put to use, but we can still gain a sense of what Biden and Obama plan to do to eventually eradicate cancer.
    Mr. Obama's statement came after months of preparation, especially by Mr. Biden. Even before the death of his son, Beau, caused by brain cancer, Mr. Biden had been meeting with physicians, biotech giants, and experts in the field to formulate ways to change research on the disease into tangible policy. Indeed, in his announcement that he was not planning to run for President in 2016, Mr. Biden stated that he believed it was time for a "moon shot in this country to cure cancer".
    Mr. Biden came forward with his own general plan for curing cancer immediately after the State of the Union. He outlined his viewpoints in an article on Medium, and began clarifying policy he intended to support in his moon shot plan. He specified two aspects of his plan that he would tackle at first. Mr. Biden first stated his intent to increase funding for for private and public organizations doing research into the best ways to manage the illness. He then discussed providing a method for sharing results between these research labs. "The science, data, and research results are trapped in silos, preventing faster progress and greater reach to patients," he said. Sharing results is not the only way to expedite the discovery process. Mr. Biden also pointed to the extremely small number of cancer patients in clinical trials — five percent — and said that increasing this number would also facilitate the research process, giving researchers more patients to work with.
    The President and Vice President are not the first two people to start on a campaign against cancer. An effort from the private sector, combining pharmaceutical and biotechnology companies called Cancer MoonShot 2020 was announced the day before the State of the Union. Led by Dr. Patrick Soon-Shiong, a billionaire physician-businessperson who has spent billions of his own money on revolutionizing cancer treatment, the effort is attempting to reform the way doctors manage cancer as an illness. Dr. Soon-Shiong was one of the people Mr. Biden had met with to understand treatment ideologies looking to the future, and has supported the transition from chemotherapy to immunotherapy, a dramatic shift in the dominant treatment method for cancer. It is possible that the two will be working together to coordinate research and treatment plans, and Mr. Biden could be coordinating with the private sector to achieve results.
    For all the buzz surrounding Mr. Obama's statement at the State of the Union, there are many who are critical of the success a general push to conquer cancer could have. There are more than 200 diseases under the umbrella of ‘cancer', and to try to address all of them using one kind of technology is, according to cancer researcher Barrie Bode "like saying we need to fix the economy once and for all. Right, like that's going to happen". Progress is being made on certain types of cancer — testicular cancer and childhood leukemia, to name a few — but the nature of the disease has to this date required research to be focused on certain types of cancer, rather than the disease as a whole. And skeptics of basing the whole ‘moon shot' also question the utility of funneling billions more into cancer research than is already budgeted.
    These skeptics are not without their suggestions. Some have suggested adjusting Medicare so that it covers genetic cancer screening, a more expensive but more thorough process that would eventually build up a national database of information for future drug targeting. Others encouraged Mr. Biden to use his position to "raise the profile of stuff already going on", so the unsung research of the day can get the recognition and financial backing it needs.
    Who knows, maybe as the policy proposals get more specific, recommendations from skeptics will get taken into account, along with what Biden has already proposed. It will take time to determine the real effect of this moon shot, but we can only hope that this push from the President and Vice President will be as successful and inspirational as President Kennedy's rousing speech was in 1962.