BOSTON (SHNS) – Sixty years after President John F. Kennedy challenged the nation to collectively get behind the goal of putting a man on the moon by the end of the 1960s, President Joe Biden detailed another effort that he thinks could bring the American people together: what he calls a “moonshot” to end cancer “as we know it” and find cures for some cancers.
The goals of Biden’s cancer moonshot are to cut the cancer death rate in half over the next 25 years, to “improve the experience” of people living with cancer and their families, and to “even cure cancers once and for all,” the president said Monday.
“For too many cancer patients and their families instead of hope, there’s bewilderment. The feeling of being on your own, frustration as hospitals and doctors can’t easily share your medical records with other hospitals and doctors to help find answers even when every minute counts, having to advocate for even the most basic care and attention for your loved ones, the flood of information is a completely different language with few people … available to help you decipher it, having therapy that could work within reach but it’s too expensive or insurance won’t cover it,” Biden said.
Cancer is the second-leading cause of death in the United States (behind heart disease). An average of 37,499 Massachusetts residents were diagnosed with a cancer each year from 2013 through 2017 and an average of 12,803 Bay Staters died of cancer each year in that span, according to the most recent state cancer incidence report.
Like most Americans, Biden has watched as cancer killed a loved one and as vice president he began an effort to marshal the resources and might of the federal government to turbocharge the search for a cure for the disease. The president on Monday remembered his son, Beau Biden, who died of brain cancer at the age of 46 in 2015.
Biden’s speech at the John F. Kennedy Library in Dorchester came on the 60th anniversary of President Kennedy’s moonshot speech encouraging lofty goals for the U.S. space program. Biden echoed Kennedy’s 1962 comment about going to the moon and aiming for other goals “not because they are easy, but because they are hard” and challenged the American public to “imagine the possibilities.”
“Vaccines that could prevent cancer, like there is for HPV. Imagine molecular zip codes that could deliver drugs and gene therapy precisely to the right tissues. Imagine simple blood tests during an annual physical that could detect cancer early when the chance of a cure are best. Imagine getting a simple shot instead of grueling chemo or getting a pill from a local pharmacy instead of invasive treatments and long hospital stays,” Biden said. He added a plea for national unity around the goal of defeating cancer.
“This cancer moonshot is one of the reasons why I ran for president,” he said. “We know this: Cancer does not discriminate — red and blue. It doesn’t care if you’re a Republican or a Democrat. Beating cancer is something we can do together and that’s why I’m here today.”
As Biden spoke in Boston, nearly 600 cancer survivors and caregivers, including dozens from Massachusetts, were in Washington, D.C. for the American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network’s Leadership Summit and Lobby Day to urge their members of Congress to make the fight against cancer a national priority.
“The President’s ongoing commitment to changing the trajectory of cancer is critical, as we need a national commitment to enact policies that will have wide reaching impact. We’ve made tremendous strides in how we prevent, detect, treat and survive cancer, but there is still much work to be done to improve the lives of those touched by this disease,” ACS CAN President Lisa Lacasse said.
The life sciences industry employed 106,704 people in Massachusetts in 2021 with an average annual wage of $201,549 — a total of $21.5 billion in Massachusetts-based wages, according to the Mass. Biotechnology Council.
MassBIO said that the drug pipelines of companies headquartered in Massachusetts account for 7.2 percent of the global pipeline and 15.6 percent of the U.S. drug pipeline. By the end of 2025, MassBIO said, the life sciences industry expects to add between 26 million and 59 million square feet of real estate in Massachusetts.
Before he left for Boston on Monday morning, Biden signed an executive order to create a National Biotechnology and Biomanufacturing Initiative that is intended to increase the capacity of domestic biomanufacturing, seek out new markets for bio-based products, turbocharge research and development efforts, train new workers, and enhance privacy standards for human biological data.
“Global industry is on the cusp of an industrial revolution powered by biotechnology,” the White House said. “Other countries are positioning themselves to become the world’s resource for biotechnology solutions and products. The United States has relied too heavily on foreign materials and bioproduction, and our past off-shoring of critical industries, including biotechnology, threatens our ability to access materials like important chemicals and active pharmaceutical ingredients.”
The Biden administration said that bioengineering could account for more than one third of the global output of manufacturing industries by the end of this decade, nearly $30 trillion in value.
Monday also saw Biden tap an executive from a Boston-based company to lead a new federal life sciences agency that many hope will end up being based in Massachusetts, the Advanced Research Projects Agency for Health (ARPA-H). Dr. Renee Wegrzyn, the vice president of business development at Ginkgo Bioworks and head of innovation at Concentric by Ginkgo, will be the agency’s first director.
“ARPA-H will have the singular purpose to drive breakthroughs to prevent, detect and treat diseases including cancer, Alzheimer’s, diabetes, and other diseases, and enable us to live healthier lives,” Biden said Monday.
Massachusetts is among a handful of states jockeying for the opportunity to host ARPA-H, which is meant to “support transformative high-risk, high-reward research to drive biomedical and health breakthroughs.”
U.S. Rep. Richard Neal, who is helping to lead the Coalition for Health Advances & Research in Massachusetts (CHARM) to convince the federal government to put ARPA-H in the Bay State, noted the important role ARPA-H will play in the effort to cure cancer and said he doesn’t “think the president chose the Kennedy Library to talk about the cancer moonshot as a lark, I think he’s quite earnest about it.”