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U.S. Vice President Joe Biden speaks at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle on Monday. (GeekWire photos)

Joe Biden was sitting across from China President Xi Jinping one recent evening at a private dinner in Chengdu, China, when President Xi asked his fellow dignitary a simple-yet-complicated question: Can you define America for me?

Biden offered a one-word answer: “Possibilities.”

The vice president retold this story today in Seattle during a stop at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, where Biden learned more about the possibilities to cure various forms of cancer as part of a listening tour for his new $1 billion White House “Moonshot” initiative that President Obama announced during the State of the Union address in January.

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Before participating in a roundtable discussion, Biden went on a quick tour of Fred Hutch to learn more about the center’s progress with its groundbreaking immunotherapy research that uses genetic engineering to re-program a patient’s immune system to fight against his or her cancer.

He then sat down for a 90-minute conversation with top researchers in the local medical field like Dr. Leroy Hood and Dr. Gary Gilliland, along with leaders like Sen. Maria Cantwell and Sen. Patty Murray. Biden outlined some of the Obama administration’s goals for the “moonshot” and was eager to learn how government can help accelerate — not inhibit — development of cancer-curing research with the same sort of determined effort that helped the U.S. reach the moon.

“We are at an inflection point,” Biden said of cancer research. “We weren’t there ten years ago, or even seven years ago.”

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Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center President Dr. Gary Gilliand; U.S. Vice President Joe Biden; and Seattle Cancer Care Alliance Chief Nurse Executive Angelique Richard speak at an event in Seattle on Monday.

Biden, whose son Beau Biden passed away in June after a bout with brain cancer, said there should be better ways with how patient data is managed and utilized. He also noted that doctors and researchers from different disciplines are working together more than ever to come up with innovative solutions.

“It’s going to come from all of you out in the field, where the vast majority of expertise exists,” he said to the roundtable, as well as the small group of folks in the crowd that included Fred Hutch board members and others.

Even the vice president has acknowledged that ridding the world of cancer is a far more difficult challenge than landing a man on the moon. Critics have pointed out that it certainly will cost more than the $1 billion the administration has budgeted.

But Biden, who is traveling to other research centers around the world as part of the listening tour, said today that this particular mission is unlike most others because of the bi-partisan support not only in the U.S., but from leaders worldwide.

“Everyone wants to be a value-add,” he noted.

The motorcade for U.S. Vice President Joe Biden leaves Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center on Monday.
The motorcade for U.S. Vice President Joe Biden leaves Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center on Monday.

Biden, who was also in town for the re-election of Sen. Murray, ended the event on Monday by describing his conversation with President Xi in China. He noted that while the “moonshot” to cure cancer is deeply personal given what happened with his son, there is also a goal of helping generate greater optimism with Americans for the future.

“It’s the defining feature of who we are as a country,” Biden said of ‘possibilities.’ “It’s stamped into the DNA of every naturalized and native-born citizen. … But it’s like we’ve kind of lost some of our mojo here with this notion of what we can do.”

Added Biden: “One of the things I’m a little concerned about is that, for the first time in my political career, there isn’t a sense of optimism about what we are capable of doing across the board.”

The vice president hopes that Americans not only realize what’s possible with the cancer research going on today, but with other high-tech projects like the Hyperloop or energy-related innovations. He said his message is not meant to be political, but rather simply that there isn’t an “overwhelming sense of optimism that I think should permeate almost all that we are doing.”

Biden looked to his peers at the roundtable, telling them that “our grandchildren will see changes in the next ten years that took 40 years to get to for us, and 75 and 100 years before that.”

“There is so much that is out there within our grasp to deal with and I think it’s time that we reinvigorate the country with a sense of, ‘we can do anything,'” Biden said. “I really mean that.”

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