Days after President Obama announced the “moonshot” to find a cancer cure during his State of the Union, Vice President Biden visited Penn’s Abramson Cancer Center to kick off the national effort he said aims to “accelerate the progress already underway” – much of which is happening right here.
"You're on the cusp of some breakthroughs," Biden said. "In my terms -- not your medical terms -- we are at an inflection point in the fight against cancer."
Carl June, MD, director of Translational Research at the ACC, and Bruce Levine, PhD, director of Penn’s Clinical Cell and Vaccine Production Facility, took Biden on a tour of the research hub that will serve as the epicenter of its pioneering personalized T cell therapy program. After, Biden led a roundtable discussion with Penn experts in immunotherapy, cancer prevention, surgery, genomics, and more, as well as ACC director Chi Van Dang, MD, PhD. Biden was also joined by University of Pennsylvania President Amy Gutmann and National Institutes of Health Director Francis S. Collins, MD, PhD.
“I’d like you to educate me,” Biden said to the group. “I’d like you to talk about what you think I should most be doing as I put this task force together.”
A flurry of clinical successes and endeavors from the Penn doctors followed: cancer vaccines trials, immunotherapies, big data, precision medicine, cancer recurrence, and early chimeric antigen receptor (CAR) therapy clinical trials for aggressive brain cancer. Emily Whitehead, the 10-year-old girl who is now cancer free after receiving CAR therapy three years ago to treat her acute lymphoblastic leukemia, was also in attendance with her parents.
While researchers have made significant headway in the fight, the field is not without its challenges, the room agreed. "Cancer politics," Biden said, are keeping people in their respective corners. Data sharing needs to continue but expand and silos at and among academic medical centers and drug companies need to be broken down, he said, in order to speed up progress. This year also finds the National Cancer Institute with its biggest budget increase in 10 years, but Biden stressed that more support from the private and public sector and philanthropists is essential to get us closer to cures and better treatments for the host of cancers diagnosed every day—some, he recognized, more complex and deadly than others.
“My commitment is not for the next 12 months,” Biden told the crowd, which also included elected officials and some 40 members of the press. “I’ve been stunned by the overwhelming response of welcoming me, to ask me to be the facilitator and convener….I plan on doing this the rest of my life.”