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Everybody's for Curing Cancer

Biden will spearhead a campaign to cure cancer. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

President Barack Obama’s call for a cure for cancer during his State of the Union address placed him in a long line of real and fictional political leaders who have made the same appeal, using much of the same language, from President Richard M. Nixon in 1971 to President Josiah Bartlet on a 2002 episode of the television show "The West Wing."  

Only, Obama’s proposal to “make America the country that cures cancer once and for all,” could actually gain some traction. While the details of the plan — including such basics as how much it would cost and where the money would be spent — were still unclear the day after his address, the proposal was greeted with considerable interest and support from congressional leaders on both sides of the aisle. “We have an incredible opportunity before us in 2016 to make a positive and lasting difference in paving the way for more life-saving cures and treatments," said House Energy and Commerce Chairman Fred Upton, R-Mich., whose committee handled legislation promoting cancer research last year. "The talk of a ‘moon shot’ is the exact mindset we need.”  

Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., pledged Democrats would support the effort "by working with the private sector, patient groups and continuing to ensure the National Institutes of Health have the resources they need to accomplish that task."  

Medical experts said cancer research has advanced so rapidly in recent years that, for the first time in history, it is credible to declare a cure within reach.  

A commitment to invest in cancer research is one of the few issues to receive broad bipartisan support from a Congress that has blocked many of the president’s most ambitious proposals. The drive has been boosted by scientific advances and a shared sense that federal spending on medical research should be a priority, an about-face after a 12-year drought in investment in the NIH.  

“The time is right for this,” said Chris Hansen, president of the American Cancer Society’s Cancer Action Network. “I would be surprised if this becomes politically controversial at all. Who wouldn’t want to cure cancer?”  

Obama made his proposal in soaring language, comparing the search for a cure to the Apollo space mission and placing Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. in "mission control." It was one of the biggest applause lines of the night. “Sixty years ago, when the Russians beat us to space, we didn’t deny Sputnik was up there,” Obama said. “We built a space program almost overnight, and 12 years later, we were walking on the moon.”  

It was the same metaphor used by both Nixon and "The West Wing" writers. Nixon called for, “the same kind of concentrated effort that split the atom and took man to the moon.” Bartlet, an idealized Democratic POTUS, tried to convince his staff that if President John F. Kennedy could envision a moon landing, “Why shouldn't I stand up and say we are going to cure cancer in 10 years?” His staff struck the item from the speech, judging it too ambitious to be believed.  

Nixon’s fight for a cure was launched at a time when doctors barely understood the disease. He infused billions of federal dollars into research but almost 50 years later, the 'War on Cancer' is not seen as having made much of a dent in death rates.  

Obama, by contrast, will benefit from a recent surge in cancer research.  

Earlier national drives to combat the cancer were based on the flawed understanding that cancer was one disease, where in reality it is a family of more than 200 diseases linked by the common trait that cancerous cells metastasize, Hansen said. The human genome project, an international effort to map all the human genes completed in 2003, gave scientists a cellular understanding of the disease that has brought the field closer to a cure than ever, he said.  

Obama was also speaking to a Congress that recently passing a $1.1 trillion omnibus bill that increased funding to the NIH by $2 billion. The House showed bipartisan support for health care research with the July passage of the 21st Century Cures Act, which created a dedicated funding stream of $1.75 billion a year to the NIH for the next five years.  

House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., said he was glad to hear the president focus on cancer research, but wished Obama had mentioned Congress' efforts.  

"I lost my father to cancer,” he said after Tuesday's speech. “It's something that shouldn't be partisan.”  

Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C., said he wished he had heard more on the topic: “That is one thing I think the entire Congress agrees on."  

And Rep. Ander Crenshaw, R-Fla., a senior appropriator, said there could be bipartisan support to fund research. "There's no question,” he said.  

Top members of Biden’s staff met last week with 15 scientists from the American Association for Cancer Research, said Jon Retzlaff, the organization’s policy director. “The thing that is reassuring to us is that Biden is committed to this cause, which is a long-term cause."  

Ryan McCrimmon, Lindsey McPherson, John Bennett and Katherine Tully-McManus contributed to this report. Contact Akin at stephanieakin@rollcall.com and follow her on Twitter at @stephanieakin. Related:

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