Vice President Biden Brings His 'Cancer Moonshot' To Burlington

Oct 21, 2016

Vice President Joe Biden spent an hour at the University of Vermont Friday describing the effort behind the so-called "Cancer Moonshot." A room full of doctors, researchers and medical students were an eager audience for Biden's message of making cancer both treatable and preventable.

Biden and other dignitaries were warmly greeted at UVM. About 300 people, a few in scrubs and white coats, listened as Biden laid out his vision for cancer research:

"We are on the cusp of breakthroughs that are breathtaking. Breathtaking!”

The VP described some of the cornerstones of the task force he's lead since January and the common thread was leveraging technology to push the edge of research farther.

"The main purpose was to decide how to clear the underbrush that was slowing progress. What impediments did the federal government present to the process, and clear them away." he said.

Some of that underbrush was research being done in silos, or by government agencies whose mission is seemingly unrelated to cancer — like the Department of Energy — but that have the potential to make breakthroughs.

"Because what I've found out is the incredible, incredible diversity of disciplines that are needed to get to the bottom of what causes a mutant gene to become mutant, what causes it to become cancer," said Biden. "These guys have no friggin' idea what does it! None! None!" Biden said, gesturing to the experts on the panel next to him, as the audience chuckled. "And by the way, they're brilliant. But my point is, that's that holy grail. That's the holy grail. How do you turn off a mutant gene?"

The line drew laughter from UVM's medical community, but some of the people in the room are doing exactly that kind of cutting edge research.

"We are on the cusp of breakthroughs that are breathtaking. Breathtaking!" — Vice President Joe Biden

"There a many ways that a genome can be changed to create a cancer cell," said Dr. Debra Leonard, head of pathology at the UVM Health Network and the Larner College of Medicine. "And depending on the specific changes that have happened to make a particular cancer, that will determine the best ways to treat that cancer."

Leonard shared the dais with Biden and other dignitaries. Her research suggests a future in which cancer treatment is tailored to an individual patient. She calls it precision, or personalized, medicine.

"I think the personalized comes down to your genome, your cancer's variants or changes that are making it a cancer, and really trying to tailor the treatment to the individual person," says Leonard.

Vice President Joe Biden, along with Sen. Patrick Leahy and others, during remarks at the University of Vermont Friday.
Credit Patti Daniels / VPR

The theme of personalized treatment connected with the personal, nearly emotional moments in the prepared remarks.

Sen. Patrick Leahy introduced Biden to the audience, and pointed out that everyone in the room had one thing in common:

"Nobody knows anybody — family, friend or coworkers — who haven't had somebody struck by cancer," said Leahy, whose, wife Marcelle, is a cancer survivor, and his older brother recently died of cancer. He took a long pause before resuming: "It is deeply personal in our family."

It's personal to Biden, too. His son Beau died of brain cancer a year and half ago, and then last January, President Obama named his VP the head of of what he called the "cancer moonshot." Biden commented getting to the moon was easier than curing cancer. There's only one moon he says; there are several hundred kinds of cancer.

"The whole purpose of my moonshot is to infuse, as Dr. King said, 'the urgency of now.' We should be unwilling to postpone — even a single day — the kind of changes we can make." — Vice President Joe Biden

He also recalled President Kennedy's speech that announced the goal of landing a man on the moon, and connected it back to the effort to fight cancer.

"He talked about, 'We don't go because it's easy, we go,' etc. But the operative line for me, Joe Biden, was he said, 'We are unwilling to postpone going,'" Biden explained. "The whole purpose of my moonshot is to infuse, as Dr. King said, 'the urgency of now.' We should be unwilling to postpone — even a single day — the kind of changes we can make."

Biden closed his remarks by telling the medical community in the room, if you were ever going to be involved in research — this is the moment.

Vice President Joe Biden departing from the University of Vermont Friday.
Credit Glenn Russell / For VPR