During his visit, Vice President Biden met with Bruce Levine, Carl June, and Amy Gutmann.

By Steve Graff

Photo by Dan Burke

Days after President Barack Obama announced the “moonshot” to find a cancer cure during his State of the Union address, Vice President Joseph Biden visited Penn’s Abramson Cancer Center (ACC) to kick off the national effort. The aim, he said, is to “accelerate the progress already under way – 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, M.D., director of translational research at the ACC, and Bruce Levine, Ph.D., director of Penn’s Clinical Cell and Vaccine Production Facility, took Biden on a tour of the research hub that will serve as the center of its pio­neering personalized T cell therapy program. Afterward, Biden led a roundtable discussion with Penn experts in im­munotherapy, cancer prevention, surgery, genomics, and more. Joining the discussion were Chi Van Dang, M.D., Ph.D., director of the center; Amy Gutmann, Ph.D., president of the University of Pennsylvania; and Francis S. Collins, M.D., Ph.D., director of the National Institutes of Health.

“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, they also agreed that the field is not without its challenges. “Cancer politics,” Biden said, are keeping people in their respective corners. Data sharing must continue and expand, but the silos at and among academic medical centers and drug companies need to be broken down to speed the 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.

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