Biden Gets Pope’s Support for Cancer ‘Moonshot’

But drug firms and fiscal conservatives remain hurdles

Pope Francis waves to crowds during his weekly general audience in St Peter's Square at the Vatican on Wednesday. (Photo by AFP/FILIPPO MONTEFORTE)
Pope Francis waves to crowds during his weekly general audience in St Peter's Square at the Vatican on Wednesday. (Photo by AFP/FILIPPO MONTEFORTE)
Posted April 29, 2016 at 5:01pm

Pope Francis is perhaps the most globally influential foot soldier in the Obama administration’s war on cancer. But there are reasons to wonder whether the divine intervention Vice President Joseph R. Biden, Jr. secured Friday will bring drug makers and fiscal conservatives to the fight.  

Biden huddled privately with Francis on the sidelines of a Vatican conference on regenerative medicine, and afterward, the pontiff used his unique pulpit as the leader of the world’s 1.2 billion Roman Catholics to call for greater cooperation to help cure some cancers within a decade.  

“We know sometimes we cannot find fast treatments or cures, but we can be fast in caring for these people, who often feel ignored,” Francis said Friday. “May you be capable and generous cooperators.”  

The pope called on government officials and private entities to support the Biden-led cancer “moonshot” initiative that President Barack Obama announced during his final State of the Union address in January.  

Jim Nicholson, a former U.S. ambassador to the Holy See, said Francis’ support “certainly couldn’t hurt.”  

And John Carr, director of the Initiative on Catholic Social Thought and Public Life at Georgetown University, noted that Francis is “the most popular leader in the world, according to multiple polls.”  

“To have the leader of one of the world’s most powerful religions and governments … brings a very powerful moral voice,” Carr said Friday. “And the vice president’s situation adds an element of persuasion, especially given the comfort and hope that the Pope gave him during that time. Others need that same hope and comfort.”  

[Related: Funding Cancer Moonshot ‘Could Be a Problem’] He was referring to the death last year of Beau Biden , the vice president’s oldest son, to cancer. Francis reached out to Biden as he and his family dealt with their loss. The vice president talked about Francis’ support at the Vatican, saying he provided “more comfort than even he, I think, will ever understand.”  

Biden also spoke about his religious faith. He is Roman Catholic but urged people of all religions and professions to seek medical breakthroughs.  

“I am calling for philanthropists, corporations and governments around the world to increase their investments in ways that improves patient outcomes,” Biden said, according to a Bloomberg report from the Vatican.  

“There’s an overwhelming need for public-private partnerships to bring together all of the human, financial, and knowledge resources at our disposal to make a quantum leap,” he said, also mentioning scientists, doctors and patients groups.  

“We can use our intelligence and capacity to make things better,” Biden said.  

The vice president cast a wide net in calling for greater cooperation, something he has done several times publicly since Obama placed him in charge of the cancer “moonshot” task force.  

As he put it during a Feb. 10 event at Duke University , 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 greatest role — that he expects to extend after he leaves office on Jan. 20 — might be that of “convener” who brings parties together for “transactions,” such as sharing information and collaborating on things like drug and treatment trials.  

But hurdles abound in herding so many public and private-sector entities, all which have divergent research and profit motives. And it is unclear whether even the help of one of the world’s most influential and beloved religious leaders will bring all the parties Biden is courting to the table.  

“I’m not aware of an instance of it ever making a great deal of difference,” Nicholson said of papal support of a U.S. administration’s desire to bring together such a vast array of companies, agencies and organizations.  

[Related: Amid Testimonials, Biden Tamps Down ‘Moonshot’ Expectations] On the “moonshot,” Obama officials and Francis himself could run into the kind of deep pessimism within the Roman Curia about the U.S. pharmaceutical industry that Nicholson said he encountered as the American ambassador there.  

But perhaps the biggest hurdle, as the vice president himself has acknowledged, could be getting the pharmaceutical industry to play ball.  

Pharmaceutical firms have to worry about market share and stock prices, making them reluctant to share closely held corporate secrets. In that way, drug makers are just like any other profit-motivated American company.  

But, notably, they have been conspicuously absent from Biden’s public cancer “moonshot” events.  

A spokeswoman for the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, a Washington-based organization that advocates for drug makers, referred a reporter to a Jan. 12 blog post, published one day after Obama’s State of the Union address.  

In it, the organization’s president and CEO Stephen Ubl called finding cancer cures a “top priority for the biopharmaceutical industry.”  

“Despite cancer presenting vexing challenges to scientists and researchers, America’s biopharmaceutical research companies are tireless in their pursuit of discovering new innovative treatments and cures,” Ubl wrote.  

The spokeswoman did not address Francis’ Friday comments nor a reporter’s reference to them in an email.  

Finding a way for pharmaceutical firms to participate in the “moonshot” will help define its success or failure, said GOP Sen. Johnny Isakson of Georgia, a member of the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee.  

“You’ve got to bring everyone in,” he said in a recent interview. “You’ve got to find a way to work with everyone.”  

[Related: As Biden Mulls Next Move, Fighting Cancer Looms Large] Elizabeth Platz, a cancer researcher and professor at Johns Hopkins University’s Bloomberg School of Public Health, said during a recent telephone interview that it was important for Biden and his “moonshot” task force to focus on “partnering across public health, medicine, academia, industry, government, and advocacy organizations.”  

Big drug manufacturers “play a critical role in prioritizing agents, optimizing and scaling up agents for testing, larger scale clinical testing, reprioritizing, and delivery of agents into the market,” Platz said. “Partnering of industry with academia and government research, as well as with patient advocacy groups, can enhance the discovery process [and] shared prioritization.”  

Biden aides say he has begun talks with drug manufacturers about the effort to cure some cancers in a decade, though less publicly than some consultations with researchers and patients groups.  

Also important will be securing support from fiscally conservative congressional Republicans, who are unhappy that the White House requested around $1 billion in “moonshot” funding for fiscal 2017 in purely mandatory dollars. GOP budget hawks view the proposed use of mandatory spending as an illegitimate way of skirting the budget caps.  

“It could be a problem,” Sen. Isakson acknowledged earlier.  

Contact Bennett at johnbennett@cqrollcall.com. Follow him on Twitter @BennettJohnT.

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