Biden Cancer Initiative Hits 'Pause'

Alicia Ault

July 18, 2019

After just 2 years in operation, the Biden Cancer Initiative has ceased operations — at least for the time being.

"Today, we are suspending activities given our unique circumstances," said Biden Cancer Initiative President Greg Simon, in a statement. "We remain personally committed to the cause, but at this time will have to pause efforts."

The organization — which was co-chaired until April by former Vice President Joe Biden and his wife Jill T. Biden — suspended its activities as of July 11. The initiative was envisioned as a way to help facilitate collaborations among academia, nonprofits, advocates, industry, and government, building on the Cancer Moonshot effort that Biden helmed while still a part of the Obama administration.

Jon Retzlaff, chief policy officer and vice president of science policy and government affairs for the American Association for Cancer Research (AACR), told Medscape Medical News that the organization was "very sorry to hear the news that the Biden Cancer Initiative was suspending its operations, especially because they have been such great partners with the AACR and other organizations over the past couple of years to accelerate progress against cancer."

Retzlaff added that the Initiative's "particular efforts in reducing cancer disparities, increasing clinical trial accrual, and improving HPV vaccination awareness and understanding — all priorities for the AACR as well — have strongly contributed to advancing our community's collective goal of saving more lives from cancer."

But with Biden running for president in 2020, it might have been ethically questionable for him to oversee an organization that sought to enlist help from the pharmaceutical and biotech industry, healthcare institutions, universities, and nonprofits — all of which could be in a position to donate to his campaign and also to have business interests with the federal government.

In June, the AP reported on those potential conflicts, noting that many of the 58 organizations that had pledged to work with the Biden Cancer Initiative had pending financial or regulatory business with the US government.

When the Bidens stepped down from their board positions in late April, however, they gave no indication that the initiative would cease operations. "We implore you keep up the progress and we wish you great success as the Biden Cancer Initiative continues its important work," they said, in a letter to the group's board of directors.

Effect on the Moonshot?

It's not clear how the initiative's break in operations will affect the Cancer Moonshot.

In June 2016, Biden addressed the American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO) at its annual meeting, announcing dozens of programs and collaborations that would unfold under the Moonshot, and asking for the professional community's support.

A few days later, he helmed a Moonshot summit in Washington, DC, and enumerated the same programs, including a widening of the National Cancer Institute's Genomic Data Commons, creation of an Oncology Center of Excellence at the Food and Drug Administration, and the start of a new oncology care model under Medicare.

Many nonprofit organizations also joined the Moonshot effort. For instance, the American Cancer Society said it would double its research budget by 2021 to $240 million annually, and the Breast Cancer Research Foundation pledged to double its research spending to a cumulative $1 billion by 2021.

The Biden Cancer Initiative formally launched in June 2017.

In September 2018, the Biden Cancer Initiative announced that 57 organizations had answered the call to "find solutions to double the rate of progress against cancer."

Those included data-sharing efforts from ASCO and the American Society of Hematology, prevention efforts from the American Lung Association and the Colorectal Cancer Alliance, and research projects through the Lymphoma Research Foundation.

The initiative was financially supported through these various partnerships, and had not been able to build on its commitments in 2019, Simon told the AP in July. He also said that some of the partnerships were not successful.

According to the AP report, the Biden Cancer Initiative will keep three board members during the hiatus, which will allow the nonprofit to start up again without having to reincorporate.

The initiative did not respond to a request for further information.

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