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Amid Testimonials, Biden Tamps Down ‘Moonshot’ Expectations

DURHAM, N.C. -- Vice President Biden (center) speaks during a roundtable about his cancer
Biden (center) speaks during a roundtable discussion at Duke University about his cancer “moonshot” program. (Photo by John T. Bennett/CQ Roll Call)

DURHAM, N.C. — Phyllis Coley spoke softly as she talked about a good friend who died of cancer in January. But her voice grew louder and more forceful when she acknowledged worries that Washington politics could derail Vice President Joseph R. Biden’s quest for a cure.

Coley believes the “moonshot” program Biden is leading has a chance to be different from similar efforts in the past that quietly faded. She hopes it can “find a cure” rather than merely yield new treatments — if politics do not intervene, that is.

“Treatment is financial,” says Coley, publisher and editor-in-chief of Spectacular magazine, a publication based here that focuses on African-American issues. “But a cure means you go in one time, and you’re not coming back.”

Coley lost her friend Sharon, a non-smoker, to lung cancer. Doctors never determined precisely what caused her illness. But Coley is heartened that President Barack Obama put Biden in charge of his self-described “moonshot” effort to cure the disease in a decade.

“When Joe Biden is committed to something, he is committed,” Coley said in an interview here at Duke University’s School of Medicine before Biden held a roundtable with experts and patients groups.

The vice president on Wednesday struck both optimistic and pragmatic tones, at once trying to energize the medical community and tamp down expectations that the government-led effort will eradicate all cancers in 10 years.

He said all Americans should find hope in the “great talent” working on cancer projects at Duke, the nearby University of North Carolina and other major medical facilities across the country. Biden also said he believes “the science is there” while other necessary things like increased information sharing within the medical community lag far behind.

Saying great strides have been made in many crucial areas of cancer detection, prevention and treatment, Biden hailed this moment in time as an “inflection point.” Several prominent cancer physicians seated around tables arranged in a U-shaped formation nodded their agreement.

But Biden at times also talked of the “moonshot” effort a bit differently than he and Obama have since the president announced it during his Jan. 12 State of the Union address.

There is no expectation his effort will produce “a silver bullet” cure, he said, adding bluntly: “I’m not naive that we’re going to find a cure for every kind of cancer.”

Biden appeared eager to better define the scope of and goals for the cancer task force he is leading.

“We have a chance to do in five years what would [normally] take 10 or 15,” he said.

He also shed more light on exactly what his role will be.

Already, Biden has met with 220 oncologists and cancer experts. More meetings are planned. And he’s “heard from” thousands of survivors since the task force was announced.

A major thrust of his work will be eliminating “silos” within the medical community, meaning pockets of data that sometimes reside only within one hospital or drug manufacturer. Biden says his greater role might be that of “convener,” bringing those parties together for “transactions” such as sharing information and collaborating on things like drug and treatment trials.

To be sure, hurdles abound.

Biden himself alluded to one several times during the Duke roundtable: getting the pharmaceutical industry involved.

“They need to engage more” on fighting cancer, he said. One way those firms could do more is trading information on the specific drugs they make and sell.

“Getting them to work together is harder than getting a nuclear deal with Iran,” Biden quipped, referring to nuclear pact the Middle Eastern power struck with the Obama administration and other world powers.

Notably, there were no pharmaceutical industry officials among the panelists to whom Biden spoke.

The cancer “moonshot,” like any other policy initiative conceived in Washington, needs money. And, not surprisingly, a lot of it.

The Obama administration’s final budget request, submitted to Congress on Tuesday, proposes applying $1 billion to fighting cancer. Those dollars, if allocated by lawmakers later this year, would pay for research on vaccines, earlier detection, genomic analysis, increased information sharing and other activities.

Biden told the audience here that Republicans and Democrats in Washington are prepared to support the “moonshot” — and federal funds for it.

And, according to the vice president, so are individuals Biden described as philanthropists. He said he already has met with dozens of them.

“Several, he said, “are worth more than $1 billion.”

Coley said she’s worried that politics-as-usual in Washington could sink it once Obama and Biden leave office, she grows concerned, replying with a nervous laugh: “Very — that’s a quick, easy answer.”

She was not the only one in attendance with a personal story to share. Seated a few seats to Biden’s right was Dr. Niklaus Steiner, a University of North Carolina professor who lost his teenage daughter to cancer. As Biden entered the room and greeted each panelist, he could be heard saying to Steiner, who along with his wife started a foundation to help adolescents and young adults fighting the disease: “Sorry. Sorry. Sorry.”

When Steiner noted that cancer success rates among adolescents and young adults “has stagnated” in recent decades, Biden’s voice cracked as he replied, “I’m aware.”

The experts Biden heard from called for increased access to care and echoed his call for information sharing.

Gayle Harris, Durham County’s public health director, told Biden that within the African-American community “there is a trust issue” because “people still remember Tuskegee.” She was referring to syphilis experiments from 1932 until 1972 at the Tuskegee Institute during which hundreds of African-American men were never informed they were ill — and, once penicillin became the go-to cure — were never given the drug.

For her part, Coley wants the next president, no matter from which party he or she hails, to keep the hard-charging Biden — who recently lost his eldest son, Beau, to cancer — in charge of the Obama-created cancer task force. She’s betting whether or not that happens will depend on the personal experiences of the next commander in chief.

It remains to be seen whether the next U.S. chief executive keeps Biden on as the country’s point man on finding a cure to a disease that the American Cancer Society estimates killed nearly 600,000 Americans last year alone.

On Wednesday, Biden said the kind of work he is doing now will compose a “major component of what I do for the rest of my life.”

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