Jill Biden, EdD
In a virtual visit to the National Cancer Institute (NCI) on February 3, 2021, just 2 weeks after her husband, Joe Biden, was sworn in as the 46th President of the United States, First Lady Jill Biden, EdD, recounted that, in her many years of travel across the United States, she learned that cancer is the one challenge that unites all Americans. “One thread of pain runs through every community, north and south, rich and poor, in the best of times and the depths of this pandemic, and that’s cancer,” said Dr. Biden.
Dr. Biden knows that pain well. During her visit to the NCI (www.youtube.com/watch?t=3198&v=VUSUi2wBtUE), Dr. Biden said her first personal experience with cancer was when she was in her early 40s, and four of her friends were diagnosed with breast cancer. The diagnoses were so troubling to Dr. Biden that she launched the Biden Breast Health Initiative to educate high school girls in her home state of Delaware about the importance of early detection.
The death of both her parents from cancer and her sister’s diagnosis of lymphoma and subsequent successful treatment of the disease further enhanced her resolve to advocate for greater education about cancer and disease prevention. However, it was the death of her stepson, Beau Biden, in 2015, at the age of 46 from glioblastoma multiforme, that helped catapult a new national effort to accelerate research in cancer prevention, diagnosis, and treatment through the National Cancer Moonshot Initiative, which President Barack Obama asked then-Vice President Joe Biden to lead.
On December 13, 2016, Congress passed the 21st Century Cures Act, which authorized $1.8 billion in supplemental funding for the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to support Moonshot projects over 7 years.1 An amendment to the legislation renamed the cancer portion of the 21st Century Cures Act the Beau Biden Cancer Moonshot. To date, the NCI has invested nearly $1 billion in Moonshot projects, supporting over 240 research programs across more than 70 cancer science initiatives, including improving immunotherapies for cancer, learning how to overcome treatment resistance, and identifying new targets for pediatric cancer.2
During his welcome remarks to the First Lady, Norman E. “Ned” Sharpless, MD, Director of the NCI, described the significant progress made in cancer research through the Beau Biden Cancer Moonshot initiative.
“[The Moonshot] includes things like expanding our ability to treat cancer by awakening the immune system. The Moonshot has worked on new approaches to fight childhood cancer. There are Moonshot initiatives aimed at improving cancer care in underserved populations so that all patients can benefit from cancer progress. This really just scratches the surface; there are many more great programs in the Moonshot. It is our fervent hope and belief at the NCI that this remarkable effort to improve the lives of all people with cancer will live up to Beau’s memory,” said Dr. Sharpless.
The Institute of Hope
During Dr. Biden’s virtual visit, she received a brief progress report on the work of three researchers at the NCI: Worta McCaskill-Stevens, MD, MS, Chief, Community Oncology and Prevention Trials Research Group; Stephanie L. Goff, MD, Associate Research Physician in the Surgery Branch of the Center for Cancer Research and a member of Dr. Steven A. Rosenberg’s senior staff; and Ligia Pinto, PhD, Director of the Vaccine, Immunity, and Cancer Program at the Frederick National Laboratory for Cancer Research.
“One thread of pain runs through every community, north and south, rich and poor, in the best of times and the depths of this pandemic, and that’s cancer.”— Jill Biden, EdD
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After their comments, Dr. Biden said: “I have to agree that you are the institute of hope because so many people in this country are patients with cancer or have someone they love who is dealing with cancer.” She reiterated the new administration’s commitment to ensure their work continues. “Joe and I have worked in this space for a long time, and I have personally worked with families and caregivers. One thing we found in the Obama/Biden administration was the benefit of collaboration and how much that meant, through all of the agencies of government just working together. So, I hope you know of our commitment, of Joe’s commitment and my commitment, to carry on that work and to really be a partner with you and everybody at NIH/NCI because we’ve got to work to fight cancer as we know it. We have to because it is not a red issue, a blue issue; it’s a human issue. It affects all Americans. I want to thank you for all that you are doing,” said Dr. Biden.
According to Dr. Biden’s White House page (www.whitehouse.gov/administration/dr-jill-biden/), during her tenure as First Lady, she plans to continue her advocacy for education, military families, and fighting cancer.
‘Nothing Will Stop Us’
This year marks the 50th anniversary of the National Cancer Act of 1971, which ushered in a new era in cancer control and focused research funding in the diagnosis, prevention, and treatment of cancer, resulting in steady improvements in cancer survival. During the 1970s, just one of two people diagnosed with cancer survived at least 5 years. Today, more than two of three people with cancer survive that long,3 and current figures show the death rate from cancer in the United States has declined by 29% from 1991 to 2017, which translates to more than 2.9 million lives saved.4 Currently, there are more than 17 million cancer survivors in the United States, and that number is expected to climb to over 22 million over the next decade.5
Still, in his remarks during the virtual meeting, Dr. Sharpless warned that many challenges have to be overcome to advance greater cancer control and to ensure that more survivors live high-quality lives after their diagnosis.
“Despite the progress [in cancer], it’s not good enough,” said Dr. Sharples. “We still have too many Americans dying of cancer, and we have made too little progress against certain types of cancer such as pancreatic cancer and glioblastoma. Even when we have treatments for these cancers that are able to cure some of these patients, often these treatments are toxic and leave patients with lifelong survivorship challenges. Now, we have this new problem against that backdrop of the pandemic’s effect on cancer diagnosis and cancer care.
“The pandemic has closed hospitals and clinics across the country; because of this, there have been many delays in screenings, diagnosis, and treatment. We believe these delays in care may translate into worse outcomes for patients with cancer over the next decade. So, a main challenge right now for the NCI is to get over the disruption caused by this pandemic and get back on that great pace of progress in cancer research. We will face this challenge and declare together that nothing will stop us, nothing will stop us in our work on behalf of people with cancer. I know that Dr. Biden is very much with us in this challenge.”
Celebrating 50 Years of Progress
“Nothing will stop us” has become the rallying cry for the NCI’s planned yearlong commemoration activities for the 50th anniversary of the National Cancer Act of 1971. The NCI hopes to build public support for cancer research and achieve the agency’s “15-by-25” goal to raise the payline for R01 applications by one percentile per year and reach the 15th percentile by 2025—a goal that was made more attainable after Congress increased the NCI’s budget this past December by $119 million for fiscal year 2021.6
For a brief history of 50 years of cancer progress since the National Cancer Act of 1971 was signed into law, visit www.cancer.gov/news-events/nca50/commemorate-national-cancer-act-50-years.
DISCLOSURE: Dr. Biden reported no conflicts of interest. Dr. Sharpless holds patents, royalties, or other intellectual property in Healthspan and Unity Biotechnology.
1. Agus DB, Jaffee EM, Dang CV: Cancer Moonshot 2.0. Lancet Oncol 22:164-165, 2021.
2. National Cancer Institute: The Cancer Moonshot: A Midpoint Progress Update. Available at www.cancer.gov/news-events/cancer-currents-blog/2021/cancer-moonshot-midpoint-progress-update?cid=eb_govdel. Accessed February 22, 2021.
3. American Cancer Society: Advancement of Cancer Survivorship. Available at www.cancer.org/cancer/cancer-basics/history-of-cancer/cancer-survivorship.html. Accessed February 22, 2021.
4. Siegel RL, Miller KD, Jemal A: Cancer statistics, 2020. CA Cancer J Clin 70:7-30, 2020.
5. National Cancer Institute: Cancer Statistics. Available at www.cancer.gov/about-cancer/understanding/statistics. Accessed February 22, 2021.
6. National Cancer Institute: NCI Budget and Appropriations. Available at www.cancer.gov/about-nci/budget. Accessed February 22, 2021.