The realignment of incentives and enhanced collaboration in cancer research are priorities that would speed the pace of discovery, with the goal to “end cancer as we know,” said Vice President Joe Biden at the 2016 American Association for Cancer Research annual meeting.
Mr Biden discussed aspects of the new “Moonshot” initiative to eliminate cancer, which was initiated by President Obama at his 2016 State of the Union Address.
Although enormous success has been realized with the current system under which cancer therapies are developed, “this is not a system, in my view, that will get us to our goal faster,” argued Mr Biden.
“I believe together we can redesign a new system or adjust to a new system to better support your efforts and save lives sooner than otherwise would have been,” he told attendees.
When Mr Biden’s son Beau was diagnosed with brain cancer, “we had access to the best doctors in the world, and the more we talked to them, the more we understood that we are on the cusp of a real inflection point in the fight against cancer.”
Removing Political Barriers to Cancer Research
To maintain the momentum for cancer research, Mr Biden promised to eliminate the political barriers that “get in the way” of cancer researchers. Until recently, one barrier has been the paucity of federal funding for cancer research.
In December 2015, Congress passed a $2-billion funding increase for the National Institutes of Health, the biggest funding bump in more than a decade, and Mr Biden said that he is asking for an additional $800 million in the 2017 budget, with all of the proposed increase to go toward cancer research.
Private–Public Sector Cooperation Is Needed
Another priority is to improve cooperation between the federal government and the private sector, especially with respect to applying for and awarding research grants.
“Let us let scientists do science,” Mr Biden said. A considerable amount of a scientist’s time is devoted to grant writing, and answers from the government may not come for at least a year. Young researchers, especially, spend an inordinate amount of time in the laboratory before being able to apply for their own grants.
“That’s like asking Derek Jeter to take several years off to sell bonds to build Yankee Stadium,” Mr Biden said. Conversely, the Prostate Cancer Foundation’s grant application process is limited to 10 pages, and approvals or denials are known within 30 days.
As part of the grant process, a move to measure progress by improving patient outcomes, rather than measuring progress by the number of published papers, is needed. “What you propose and how it affects patients, it seems to me, should be the basis of whether you continue to get the grant,” Mr Biden said.
Data-Sharing Promotes Discovery
Aggregating big data and data-sharing are 2 other priorities that could move the needle toward faster discovery. An aggregation of genomics, patient medical records, family histories, and lifestyles would enable researchers to “take advantage of the supercomputing capability we have today to find answers that will take you otherwise a decade to find,” Mr Biden said.
“Why is all of this being done separately? Why is so much money being spent when, if it is aggregated, everyone acknowledges the answers would come more quickly?” He encouraged attendees to share their ideas and data to accelerate the progress of cancer research.
Increased data-sharing is paramount to discovery and success, but too often, significant breakthroughs are hidden behind pay walls, with journals owning research data for up to 1 year. “The taxpayers fund $5 billion a year in cancer research every year, but once it is published, nearly all of that taxpayer-funded research sits behind walls,” said Mr Biden. “Tell me how this is moving the process along more rapidly.”
More should be done to reward the work of verification, which is crucial to understanding disease biology. “We should incentivize verification,” he said. “Over a 10-year period, Amgen scientists tried to replicate 53 landmark studies in cancer biology. Only 6 were able to be verified.”
Furthermore, efforts to improve clinical trial participation are needed. Only 4% of patients with cancer are involved in a clinical trial, noted Mr Biden. “Everywhere I go, there is an acknowledgment that we need new approaches to clinical trials as combination therapies become the norm for cancer treatment,” he said.
Mr Biden thanked attendees for the role in the fight against cancer, saying, “There is more brain in this room than exists in many countries, and we need you. You’re the very best we have.”