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A History of Joe Biden’s War on Cancer

Jun 29, 2017

Former Vice President Joe Biden has launched a new nonprofit called the Biden Cancer Initiative. Several of Biden's compatriots in that organization, including renowned cancer specialist Dr. David Agus and former National Economic Council director Jeff Zients, have a piece up on Fortune this morning describing its mission. "The Biden Cancer Initiative will complement and accelerate, not duplicate, the work of the scores of cancer foundations that exist today by addressing the institutional and structural issues that slow down progress in fighting all forms of cancer," they write.

This is the latest salvo in the Vice President's war on cancer. Here's a brief history of what led to his passion for the issue, and the initiatives and goals he's taken on in the fight.

Early environmental work

Biden's history with combating cancer arguably began in the nascent years of his career. After being elected to the Senate in 1972, Biden became a major proponent of environmental protection legislation and regulations to cut harmful emissions. He continued those efforts throughout his expansive career in the Senate, signing on to legislation to include oil and gas smokestacks emissions in mercury regulations and requiring Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) risk assessments. There is significant evidence that environmental factors, including air quality, can increase cancer risks.

Beau Biden's cancer

The former vice president's involvement with cancer became personal when his late son, former Delaware Attorney General Beau Biden, was diagnosed with brain cancer in 2013. Two years later, the younger Biden died at the age of 46, eventually prompting his father's decision not to run for the 2016 Democratic nomination for president.

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The Cancer Moonshot

Soon after the Beau Biden tragedy, then-President Barack Obama put Biden into the forefront of a national cancer fight. (Obama himself had previously called for making America the country that finds a cure for cancer.) During his final State of the Union address, Obama announced a National Cancer Moonshot task force and appointed Biden to head it.

"Last year, Vice President Biden said that with a new moonshot, America can cure cancer," said Obama during his speech last January, adding that Biden previously worked to boost funding for the National Institutes of Health (NIH). "Tonight, I’m announcing a new national effort to get it done. And because he’s gone to the mat for all of us, on so many issues over the past forty years, I’m putting Joe in charge of Mission Control. For the loved ones we’ve all lost, for the family we can still save, let’s make America the country that cures cancer once and for all."

A Genomic Data Commons

Biden quickly got to work on the initiative, setting up meetings and strategy sessions with a variety of stakeholders including U.S. health officials, cancer research institutes, drug companies, and others. In June 2016, he delivered the keynote speech at the American Society of Clinical Oncology's (ASCO) annual meeting—the largest cancer conference in the world with more than 30,000 attendees.

In that address, Biden announced a new federal Genomic Data Commons that would be housed under the National Cancer Institute (NCI). Its purpose? To get reticent researchers and institutions to share their data and hasten cures. "All information from trials funded by NCI from this point on will have to be submitted to the database," said Biden. "Imagine if you all worked together."

Last fall, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and NIH finalized new rules that would cost government-funded researchers a financial penalty if they fail to post their clinical trial researchers in a timely manner.

The Biden Cancer Initiative

After leaving the White House, Biden has continued—and even doubled down on—his dedication to fighting the structural barriers to finding cancer cures. During an appearance at the South By Southwest (SXSW) music, technology, and arts festival in Austin, Texas in March, Biden told the audience that he had relayed to President Obama that he "would have loved to have been the president who presided over the end of cancer as we know it."

In May, Biden was the keynote speaker at Fortune's second annual Brainstorm Health conference. There, he stated that the Biden Cancer Initiative would be the next iteration of the Moonshot, and that he would continue to tackle issues like data silos, slow drug regulatory pathways, and the high cost of cancer drugs through the organization.

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