On the 60th anniversary of John F. Kennedy’s moonshot speech, President Biden came to the Kennedy Library in Boston to supercharge his campaign to cut cancer deaths in half over the next 25 years.
The event on Monday renewed efforts initially spearheaded by Biden in 2016 when he was vice president, and restarted in February 2022. Standing in a room of patients, medical experts, and politicians, he said that the long-term goal would be to cure cancers once and for all.
“President Kennedy called for a moonshot,” he said. “We didn’t have all the tools and experience we needed. With our cancer moonshot today, we do.”
Biden’s speech echoed Kennedy’s commitment to scientific advancement and technological innovation that helped land a man on the moon in 1969.
On Monday, Biden detailed a vision that included vaccines that could prevent cancer and molecular “zip codes” that could deliver drugs and gene therapies to the right place. He envisioned a blood test that could detect cancer early, and a single shot that could replace grueling chemotherapy treatments.
The commitment to battling cancer is deeply personal to Biden, who lost his son Beau to brain cancer in 2015. He remarked that after Beau’s death, Ted Kennedy’s wife, Vicki Kennedy, wrote to him. She recalled that after John Kennedy died, Kennedy’s father wrote a letter remarking that when a loved one’s life is cut short, it makes you wonder what you’ll accomplish with the rest of yours.
“For so many of us, that’s what we’re trying to do. Live a life worthy of the loved ones we have lost, and the loved ones we can save,” Biden said.
As part of the effort, Biden announced that Dr. Renee Wegrzyn, an executive at Ginkgo Bioworks of Boston, will be the inaugural director of the Advanced Research Projects Agency for Health, which will focus on biomedical research and innovation.
While some in health care have expressed skepticism that cancer deaths could be cut so dramatically in so short a time, Dr. Bill Hahn, executive vice president and chief operating officer at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, said there was no better time to double down on the moonshot initiative, given the discoveries of the human genome, the advent of immunotherapy, and the promise of advances in early detection.
Those efforts could address cancers that have been incredibly challenging to confront, such as pancreatic cancer and brain tumors. In 2022, the American Cancer Society estimates, 1.9 million new cancer cases will be diagnosed and 609,360 people will die of cancer diseases.
“We’re at an important juncture where a lot of progress has been made and there’s a lot of potential, but there’s a lot of hard work that will require more than the usual people involved. His vision is just in line with what is needed,” said Hahn, after attending Biden’s speech.
Biden also signed an executive order to launch a National Biotechnology and Biomanufacturing Initiative, aimed at boosting domestic biomanufacturing and identifying research and development needs in bioscience and biotechnology.
The president’s Cancer Cabinet, formed seven months ago to help realize a vision of eradicating cancer as we know it, has also been busy, noting that the National Cancer Institute launched a national trial for multicancer detection through blood tests. Research is also progressing with a program, created by the Department of Defense, to better understand the links between cancer and military toxic exposure.
The cancer moonshot was launched in early 2016, when President Barack Obama announced that Biden would lead the initiative. While out of office, Biden and his wife, Jill Biden, founded the Biden Cancer Initiative, a nonprofit that worked to coordinate new approaches to cancer medicine with multiple organizations.
In February, Biden relaunched the moonshot initiative with a new goal — reducing cancer death rates by 50 percent by 2047 and improving the experience for cancer patients and families.
Biden’s cancer moonshot echos the war on cancer launched by President Richard Nixon, who in a December 1971 address said that “the same kind of concentrated effort that split the atom and took man to the moon should be turned toward conquering this dread disease.”
In October 2016, speaking at the Edward M. Kennedy Institute for the US Senate, next door to the JFK library, Biden remarked that progress on Nixon’s vision was slow-going but technological advancements, many of which occurred in Boston, had changed the outlook.
Kate Walsh, chief executive of Boston Medical Center, who also attended Monday’s speech, said she was struck by the idea of bringing the power of the US government behind the challenge, especially to focus on reducing the disparities in care and outcomes. She also noted Biden’s comments that health systems had to smooth the experience for families going through the disease.
Katie Murphy, president of the Massachusetts Nurses Association and a nurse at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, said the focus on cancer would propel progress in other diseases.
Karen Knudsen, CEO of the American Cancer Society, said she appreciated that Biden’s focus was on more than just research and treatments, but also on screenings and the broader continuum of care.
Biden’s speech was also well attended by many in Boston politics, including US Secretary of Labor Martin J. Walsh, a child cancer survivor; US representatives Stephen Lynch, Ayanna Pressley, Lori Trahan, and Jake Auchincloss; state Senate President Karen Spilka; and Boston Mayor Michelle Wu.
As he set out a broad vision, Biden met with those who were confronting cancer more immediately. Dr. Daphne Haas-Kogan, chair of the Department of Radiation Oncology at Dana-Farber Brigham Cancer Center, said she saw her own patient, who is battling a brain cancer, seated in front of her. Her eyes were red, and the patient told her said she had wept on Biden’s shoulder.
“He handed her his handkerchief and she was holding on to it for dear life, saying, ‘This will be my good luck charm,’” Haas-Kogan said. “To think such an important leader touched her in such a personal way brought me to tears. It was really something.”