There was a moment during Obama’s valedictory State of the Union address last night that seemed uncharacteristically unscripted. Obama announced that he was putting Vice President Joe Biden in charge of “Mission Control”—that is, in charge of the initiative to cure cancer by 2020. There’s no audio of it, but if you can read lips, Biden seems to have leaned over to Speaker Paul Ryan and said, “That’s news to me.”
But despite all appearances, it seems Biden wasn’t surprised by the announcement; in conjunction with Obama’s speech, the Vice President’s office published a post on Medium outlining the roadmap towards a cure for cancer.
Cancer, as noted in the Medium post, is personal issue for Biden (his son, Beau, died from brain cancer at the age of 46 last May), but also for millions of Americans who have lost loved ones to different forms of cancer. Researchers have made amazing progress in the past few years, the post reads, and this is the moment to help scientists take advantage of that momentum and move towards a cure.
According to the post, Biden plans to:
1.) Increase resources — both private and public — to fight cancer.
2.) Break down silos and bring all the cancer fighters together — to work together, share information, and end cancer as we know it.
The first point is probably not surprising—more money for cancer research means more researchers and more ideas. And that’s happening already—for 2016, Congress just allocated a budget of $5.21 billion to the National Cancer Institute, an increase of $260.5 million from 2015.
Biden’s second plan, of increasing collaboration among scientific institutions, is an idea that has been around, in one form or another, for quite some time. Last year researchers launched a new scientific journal intended draw in research across different specialties within cancer research. Promising new treatments such as immunotherapy and precision medicine have necessitated scientists to call upon colleagues with different expertise to work together to improve the method.
But scientific “silos” aren’t anyone’s fault—they’re a product of a rigid and specialized academic climate. The Vice President writes that the federal government will use “funding, targeted incentives, and increased private-sector coordination” along with collaboration from “data and technology innovators” to increase cooperation across disciplines. In practice, that might result in a data-sharing program that allows scientists to share data on a national scale, or increased federal support for gene sequencing, as Ars Technica writes.
Some experts think scientists would benefit more from Biden’s efforts if they were focused on increased sharing of genetic data across institutions, as STAT reports today. Sharing individuals’ genetic data is still an issue that is ethically and legally fraught, with no clean-cut solution in sight.
In the centuries in which scientists have sought a cure for cancer, we’ve come to understand a lot about how cancer works. One key component is that cancer isn’t just one disease—it’s hundreds of diseases that can endanger patients’ lives due to factors such as inherited genetics, environmental and lifestyle factors, and plain old bad luck. In some ways, these discoveries have discouraged researchers looking for a single cure for cancer. But Biden is right in this respect: If there’s ever a time to find that cure, this is it.