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In the third most-viewed TED talk of all time, Simon Sinek explained: people do not care what you do, they care why you do it. He asserted great leaders inspire action by communicating their why. For many of us involved in cancer research or cancer care, our work comes from a personal place, having battled the disease or witnessed a friend or family member do so. And for the next four years, there will be a White House with that same personal connection. Joe Biden’s son Beau battled Glioblastoma for two years before passing away in 2015. Vice President Kamala Harris’s mother, Shyamala Gopalan was a cancer researcher, and died of colon cancer in 2009. Both of Jill Biden’s parents died of cancer, and in 1993, four of her friends were diagnosed with breast cancer.
In June 2019, Biden promised if he were elected, our country would cure cancer. To say this is a lofty goal is an understatement, but the message is clear – cancer research should be a priority for this administration. President Biden’s past actions seem to support this. In his last year as Vice President, Biden led the Cancer Moonshot initiative, a program devoted to accelerate cancer research discoveries, increase collaboration, and improve data sharing practices. Moonshot has funded 240 new research projects. Findings are shared to a cloud-based system accessed by 70,000 people per month. Biden also created a nonprofit foundation called the Biden Cancer Initiative, which was focused on accelerating cancer research discovery. Further evidence of his commitment comes in that in January 2021, Biden appointed a leading cancer researcher to his cabinet by naming Dr. Eric Lander the director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy.
In 2016, the Cancer Moonshot program laid out 12 research initiatives. In the present, the Biden Administration must continue to confront another health crisis in the form of COVID-19. Nonetheless, there are several potential changes the cancer community can keep an especially close eye on during the course of the administration.
When I was in elementary school, if I ever complained about a research project, my parents were keen to remind me “back in their day” they did not have the internet, and instead had to find real books at a library. In this theme, recognizing the advantages technology can infuse into the efficiency of information sharing, the cancer research community is intent on encouraging open data sharing and leveraging technology to inform cancer research discoveries. The National Cancer Data Ecosystem is an ongoing project that aims to provide a cloud-based infrastructure where researchers can share their own data, quickly access data from peers, and perform powerful data analyses. While some of this development is already completed, there is still a need for infrastructure that can support sharing of clinical imaging data, more robust analysis tools, and standards surrounding the data shared.
Second, government organizations will likely push for a stronger emphasis on early detection. This goal was outlined in the original Cancer Moonshot plan, but COVID-19 has only made it more crucial. One study analyzed a medical claims database for the period of March 2020 to July 2020. The analysis revealed there was an 85%, 75%, 56%, and 74% drop in screenings for breast, colon, lung, and prostate cancer, respectively, compared to the same period in 2019. Declines in cancer screening can be due to several factors including lockdowns, apprehension to visit doctors during the pandemic, lack of insurance coverage due to job loss, and economic strain-induced declines in funding to cancer charities. According to members of the Population-based Research to Optimize the Screening Process (PROSPR) consortium, solutions include enhancing remote screening and at-home testing and performing outreach to populations less likely to seek cancer screening or at high risk for the disease.
A third and final change highlighted here is that we could see modifications to research incentive structures. For example, Biden has expressed a desire to give more grants to researchers who replicate studies to verify previous findings. He also would like to counteract how difficult it is for a researcher to receive a grant for an “outside the box” idea, and the fact that receiving any grant at all takes an exorbitant amount of a researcher’s time. Lastly, we could see some actions put in place to incentivize publishing in open-access journals. Works published in these journals are free for anyone to access, while accessing works in some journals can require a subscription cost on the order of hundreds of dollars.
In 2017, Joe Biden went on The View to speak with Meghan McCain about his son Beau’s cancer battle. At the time, McCain herself had just learned that her father, Senator John McCain, had been diagnosed with the same type of cancer that took Beau’s life. Biden recounted for the audience that day a piece of philosophy by Immanuel Kant. He said: There are three rules for happiness: something to do, someone to love, and something to hope for. In November, voters guaranteed that Biden will have no shortage of things to do, as he will be serving as the 46th President of the United States. Though gone, his son Beau, whom Biden has called “his soul,” remains someone he loves. And with leaders who care deeply about improving treatment options and expanding support for cancer patients and their families, maybe we all have something to look forward to.
Edited by Rachel Cherney
Biden Calls for Realigning Research Incentives. Cancer Discovery. 2016;6(6). doi:10.1158/2159-8290.cd-nb2016-051
Cancer Moonshot℠. National Cancer Institute. https://www.cancer.gov/research/key-initiatives/moonshot-cancer-initiative. Accessed March 22, 2021.
First Lady Jill Biden Makes Cancer Research a Top Priority. Cancer Health. https://www.cancerhealth.com/article/first-lady-jill-biden-makes-cancer-research-top-priority. Published February 8, 2021. Accessed March 22, 2021.
Mitchell EP. Declines in Cancer Screening During COVID-19 Pandemic. Journal of the National Medical Association. 2020;112(6):563-564. doi:10.1016/j.jnma.2020.12.004
Vice President Biden Calls for Open Access, Open Data, & New Research Incentives for Cancer Research. SPARC. https://sparcopen.org/news/2016/vice-president-biden-calls-for-open-access-open-data-new-research-incentives-for-cancer-research/. Published April 22, 2016. Accessed March 22, 2021.