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On Cancer 'Moonshot,' Time is Ticking for Biden

Biden is driving Obama's campaign to cure cancer. (Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

Vice President Joseph R. Biden is widely seen as the engine behind the Obama administration’s “moonshot” anti-cancer push, raising questions about its fate once he leaves office next year.  

The White House on Thursday took the first tangible steps in its fight against cancer, formally establishing a task force first mentioned in President Barack Obama’s State of the Union address. Biden, who will lead the task force, sounded at times bold and cautious.  

“We’re on the cusp of incredible breakthroughs in both research and therapies,” Biden wrote in a Medium post . “In just the last decade or less, we’ve seen amazing advances in immunotherapy, in genomics, in virology and combination therapies.”  

He vowed that his task force will “break through some of the barriers and do what we can to help speed up the progress, so that we can deliver treatments and increase access to these new approaches for millions more people.”  

But even while declaring his optimism, he acknowledged the challenges ahead. He will lead a task force composed of five massive government departments and nearly 10 offices, institutes and agencies from across the sprawling -- and often hard-to-wrangle -- federal apparatus. He has a year left in his term and no definitive budget identified yet.  

Cancer research advocates say the concerted focus on one issue could make a difference.  

“If this is [Biden’s] single most important issue, he’s going to wake up every morning wanting to know what those federal agencies are doing and how the private sector and outside stakeholders could be helpful,” said Jon Retzlaff, managing director of science policy and government affairs at the American Association for Cancer Research.  

“That’s going to result in additional opportunities and ideas for overcoming some of the challenges and barriers that we are facing today,” Retzlaff added. “If this is one of the top, if not the single most important priority of the administration for this year, to have leadership at that level could really change the way we’ve been approaching this whole effort until now.”  

Biden, who lost his son, Beau, to cancer last year, will assemble the task force for the first time on Monday. He struck a pragmatic tone in his comments. For instance, he noted the importance of bringing drug manufacturers into the government’s fight against cancer.  

Janet Marchibroda of the Bipartisan Policy Center called the formal creation of the group “a good first step.”  

“So many federal agencies that play a role in prevention -- or in working on a cure, or getting drugs to market faster -- that pulling pulling together the agencies into one task force feels right,” Marchibroda said.  

She also said it is “important” that Obama and his top aides opted to house it within the vice president’s office. “This is really a job for the executive branch,” she said. “So the vice president’s role really helps demonstrate that this is a priority.”  

But  House Energy and Commerce Chairman Fred Upton, R-Mich., who supports the anti-cancer program, sounded an alarm.  

“Our only concern is timing. Patients and their families can’t wait any longer,” Upton said in a statement prepared for Roll Call, issuing a warning to Biden on avoiding bureaucratic quicksand.  

“Now is not the time for another task force or a long series of meetings,” Upton said. “Now is the time to act for patients to find faster cures.”  

The timing of the cancer “moonshot” has raised eyebrows around Washington. After all, it was launched in the final year of an administration that has struggled to garner congressional buy-in since Republicans grabbed control of the House in 2010.  

Another timing hurdle: Biden will relinquish what amounts to his role as program manager next January. And it is unclear whether the next administration will put as much emphasis on the task force’s work as Obama is during his final 12 months in office.  

Still, experts and lawmakers are giving the White House high marks for pinpointing issues key to a successful anti-cancer effort.  

For instance, the White House is putting a particular emphasis on, as Biden put it, “the potential to take advantage of big data and advances in supercomputing with greater data sharing.” To that end, the task group will try to promote ways to make a “treasure trove of information” spread across multiple cancer centers across the country accessible to all those doing cancer-related work.  

“The data sources exist,” Marchibroda said. “The role of the government on making that data interoperable is to set standards.  

“That would be huge,” she added. “I think they could get a lot done in a year” just by “figuring out where the highest-priority data is.”  

Though the initiative is expected to be costly without yielding immediate results, so far it has met little political resistance.  

Aides to the leaders of the congressional committees that will decide whether to dole out funds for the cancer “moonshot” program said Thursday that they are still waiting for more details from the White House.  

White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest advised reporters on Thursday to “stay tuned” when asked if the administration's fiscal 2017 budget request will seek new funding for anti-cancer work.  

But, on Capitol Hill, lawmakers were quick to note medical legislation is on the move -- and with bipartisan support.  

Upton said the “moonshot” program’s mission “fits exactly within” that of the 21st Century Cures Act, a measure aimed at cracking the codes of many diseases. The House passed that measure, 344-77, last July.  

“Let’s add the administration’s thoughts to our bill and get it enacted before the end of the year,” Upton said. “We feel like we’ve already launched the ‘moonshot.’ It’s time for a successful landing.”  

“We are working ... to send to the president’s desk bipartisan legislation that would safely bring lifesaving drugs and medical devices to patients more quickly,” Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee Chairman Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., said in a statement.  

The White House on Thursday also issued much-anticipated guidance for the “moonshot” group, further defining its mission and members.  

Obama ordered the group to “work with a wide array of executive departments and agencies that have responsibility for key issues related to basic ... and clinical research, therapy development, regulation of medical products, and medical care related to cancer.”  

What’s more, in a three-page guidance document Obama directed the Biden-led task force to come up with a “detailed set of findings and recommendations on a range of cancer-related issues. Specifically, he ordered the group to propose ways to improve the “prevention, early detection, treatment, and cure” of the disease, and ways to “improve patient access and care.”  

The task force also has been directed to identify ways to expand access to new research, spur work on new cancer treatments, and strip away “regulatory barriers” -- the latter likely will be music to the medical community and Republican lawmakers’ ears. Obama also ordered the group to spell out ways to “ensure optimal investment of federal resources” and highlight potential public-private partnerships.  

Obama spelled out more details about how the group will be constructed and go about its work. It will include officials from some of the federal government’s behemoths, like the Pentagon and Department of Health and Human Services. Representatives from the National Institutes of Health, National Cancer Institute, and the White House Office of Management and Budget also will be among its members.  

Christopher Hansen, the president of the American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network, said Biden, who received the president’s blessing during the State of the Union address, will have an unique -- but daunting -- opportunity to bring all those entities together.  

To that end, Biden and members of his staff has already been meeting with many of the country’s leading researchers and advocacy groups. Due to the massive snowfall that Washington struggled to recover from this week, a meeting with American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network had to be rescheduled.  

“If you think of the time they have left,” Marchibroda said, “this interagency coordination piece is something that is best suited for executive branch -- and, really, at the highest level like this.”  

Contact Bennett at johnbennett@cqrollcall.com and follow him on Twitter at @BennettJohnT. Contact Akin at stephanieakin@rollcall.com and follow her on Twitter at @stephanieakin.

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