Like so many in the world, President Joe Biden has been personally hit by a cancer death after the loss of his son Beau in 2015 to a brain tumor.
During his time as vice president to former President Barack Obama, he ran the so-called Cancer Moonshot research initiative, which wanted to speed up cancer treatments and funneled more than $1 billion into 240 research projects and 70 cancer science efforts.
After leaving office, he also started the Biden Cancer Initiative in 2017 as a way to bring together researchers and share data, but this is now suspended given his resurgent political career.
It feels like an odd time to be talking about cancer, during a COVID-19 pandemic; though, with so many cases globally expected not to be picked up due to lockdowns and fears over visiting doctors—as well as a drop-off in trials for the disease during the first wave—perhaps this is the best time.
So, Biden is: This week, he met with a bipartisan group of lawmakers at the White House to build on his long-running theme: speeding cancer research. He added the world was nearing some “real breakthroughs.”
“We can make significant strides fighting cancer and Alzheimer’s and other diseases,” he said. “I think we’re on the cusp of some real breakthroughs across the board on cancer.”
At the moment, that’s all she wrote: There were no policy plans announced from the meeting, and it remains vague as to how these aims can be achieved.
There are breakthroughs: Recent statistics from the American Cancer Society show that just before the pandemic started, the U.S. saw the single largest drop—2.4%—in the rate of cancer deaths on record.
This is mainly down to efforts in lung cancer, predominately stopping people smoking, as well as new immunotherapies and genomically targeted therapies, including the likes of Merck’s blockbuster Keytruda, which has been one of only a handful of drugs to ever show decent survival data in certain lung cancers.
There is, however, no quick fix: The pandemic is seeing less money go into cancer charities, which often help fund very early research, and the prices of new cancer drugs can literally bankrupt families, with many new cancer drugs often exciting in scientific terms but not always backed up by strong overall survival data.
New drugs are only one part of the puzzle: Major changes in lifestyle such reducing levels of smoking, alcohol consumption, pollution, obesity and UV exposure will have bigger impacts on long-term cancer trends. Biden will clearly continue to push for better oncology treatments, but the pandemic is only making that harder.