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Biden makes his pitch for a ‘moonshot’ against cancer

Vice President Joe Biden wiped away a tear as he spoke on the Cancer Moonshot Initiative Wednesday.Keith Bedford/Globe Staff

Vice President Joe Biden delivered an upbeat, impassioned pitch for his federal cancer-curing initiative in Boston on Wednesday, saying technology had allowed for tremendous advances but that research had been held back by outdated medical cultures and systems.

Biden, who reported to President Obama on Monday about the Cancer Moonshot Initiative he is overseeing, said that 45 years of cancer research since President Nixon announced a similar effort in 1971 had created a vastly greater understanding of the disease.

“We now have an army and powerful new technologies and tools. And with this moonshot, I believe we have a clear strategy on how to move ahead,” said Biden, speaking at the Edward M. Kennedy Institute for the US Senate on Columbia Point.


Biden acknowledged skepticism toward the initiative, because it has been tried before. He said the cancer research system established in 1971 needed to be “reorganized” to unleash the potential curative powers of advanced research and technology, such as genome mapping and computers that tabulate factors like family history. He urged researchers to share their work more openly.

Biden first outlined the program in a Rose Garden speech last October, months after losing his son Beau to brain cancer. In his January State of the Union message, Obama put Biden in charge of a rejuvenated effort to cure cancer.

The task force driving the initiative has a stated goal of doubling the pace of progress in research and treatment of cancer. Biden said the moonshot focused on two chief components: “one, injecting as Dr. [Martin Luther] King said ‘the urgency of now,’ and, two, is changing the system and the culture of medicine that existed in 1971 to accommodate these immense opportunities that exist in 2016.”

Biden, who weighed a presidential bid before announcing last October that he would not run, said both far-flung federal departments and corporations had enlisted in the effort. He said he wanted to “make clear that the United States of America, public and private sector, is unwilling to postpone cures for cancer.”


Biden’s voice grew thick with emotion when he described stories of patients with terminal diagnoses imploring their doctors for an extra six months or 10 days of life so they could be present for important family events or arrange their affairs.

He also discussed his own family’s struggles with the disease, recalling how one doctor informed Beau that there was little hope of recovery.

“I almost knocked him on his ass,” Biden said.

Boston Mayor Martin J. Walsh, a survivor of childhood cancer, called the White House prioritization of research and treatment an unusual step.

“Cancer takes a lot of people’s lives early and I think the fact that the White House is making such . . . a big investment about how to deal with cancer is important,” said Walsh, one of several local notables who attended the speech.

“You don’t actually think of it as a national policy issue that a president or vice president would talk about, but the fact that it’s risen to that level is important,” Walsh said.

Biden arrived more than an hour after the program was to begin, stalling Red Line trains during rush hour, according to the MBTA.

“I truly apologize for keeping you waiting. You probably thought I was Bill Clinton,” Biden joked, referring to the former president’s penchant for tardiness.


Victoria Reggie Kennedy, widow of the late senator for whom the institute is named, introduced Biden, saying, “He understands firsthand the toll that cancer takes on families. So do I. And so does everyone in this room.”

Biden’s speech came a day before he is scheduled to campaign in Nashua on behalf of Hillary Clinton.

Jim O’Sullivan can be reached at jim.osullivan@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter at @JOSreports.