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Our view: Biden's 'cancer moonshot'

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President Joe Biden greets Ambassador Caroline Kennedy before he speaks on the cancer moonshot initiative at the John F. Kennedy Library and Museum on Monday in Boston.

Joe Biden wants to beat cancer.

In this autumn of our discontent, that headline could become an easy target for snark and sarcasm.

But not so fast.

Why not choose a bold initiative that most of us can get behind, red, blue and in between?

We’re guessing that even Tucker Carlson would agree that cancer is a bad thing.

And better yet, why not make North Carolina a key player in Biden’s “cancer moonshot” campaign? More on that later.

On Monday Biden stressed again his desire to defeat cancer with the minds and muscle of the entire country behind such an effort.

“Cancer does not discriminate red and blue,” Biden said in a speech at the Kennedy Presidential Library. “It doesn’t care if you’re a Republican or a Democrat. Beating cancer is something we can do together.”

The date and setting for the speech were not insignificant. John F. Kennedy made his famous “moonshot” speech 60 years ago on Sept. 12 to press his case for putting U.S. astronauts on the moon. (Spoiler alert: Like curing cancer, it wasn’t easy. But it got done.)

The “cancer moonshot” initiative itself is not new. The concept dates back to 2016, during Biden’s days as Barack Obama’s vice president. This week’s announcement was a reboot of sorts, for a cause that resonates personally with him. His son, Beau, died of brain cancer in 2015 at age 46.

Adding substance to the president’s rhetoric, the White House earlier had announced that Dr. Renee Wegrzyn would be appointed the head of the Advanced Research Projects Agency for Health (ARPA-H), a new agency established by Biden in February to focus on health and biomedical research, including cancer, Alzheimer’s disease and diabetes.

Further, Biden said he is issuing a new executive order that launches a National Biotechnology and Biomanufacturing Initiative to help support efforts to end cancer.

Specifically, the president has set a goal of cutting the U.S. death rate from cancer by at least 50% by the year 2047. The initiative also aims to “improve the experience of people and their families who are living with and surviving cancer,” the White House said in a statement.

That may seem like a stretch, but mortality rates from cancer are falling, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says.

Though cancer is the nation’s second highest cause of death, mortality rates fell by 27% from 2001 to 2020.

Still, it takes a heavy toll. The American Cancer Society predicts 1.9 million new cancer cases in the U.S. in 2020 and 600,000 deaths.

As for North Carolina, it is one of several states that are expected to vie for the new agency, ARPA-H, including California, Massachusetts and Texas.

A coalition of more than 30 universities, hospitals and other organizations say North Carolina’s growing biotech industry makes it an ideal location for ARPA-H. Gov. Roy Cooper and a bipartisan group of congressional leaders also have expressed their support.

North Carolina’s interest in Biden’s cancer initiative is not a recent development, nor is Biden’s interest in North Carolina. In 2016, Vice President Biden visited Duke Cancer Institute and the Duke University School of Medicine to discuss the original launch of the cancer moonshot. Biden also touted the formidable presence the Research Triangle, where major universities, biotechnology companies and federal research agencies have collaborated for decades.

Congress will decide whether ARPA-H will be a separate agency, or if it will be housed in the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Md.

Meanwhile, curing division among Americans seems almost as hard these days as curing cancer. Remember, Americans could not unify in the face of a pandemic that has taken more than 1 million lives in this nation.

Then again, life was no crystal stair in 1962, either, when John F. Kennedy exhorted Americans to go to the moon, precisely because it was hard.

Already the Russians had beaten America into space in 1961.

In January of 1962, an unmanned NASA probe had missed the moon by 22,000 miles.

An American Airlines Boeing 707 crashed on takeoff at New York International Airport, killing all 95 crew members and passengers.

The war raged on in Vietnam.

And then there was the Cuban Missile Crisis, during which the world teetered on the brink of nuclear war.

Kennedy reached for the stars anyway.

“We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy,” Kennedy said, “but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win, and the others, too.”

Sadly, we have known the ravages of cancer for so long, and so many of us, like the president, have been touched personally by the disease.

Why not the shoot for the moon and at least try to come together against it?

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