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Former Vice President Joe Biden, shown on a huge video screen, addresses the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Austin, Texas. (GeekWire Photo)

AUSTIN, Texas — Joe Biden may no longer be vice president, but he’s still leading the charge for his cancer moonshot, and for science funding as well.

“The United States government, at this point in our development, should be doubling and tripling down on investment in pure research across the board,” Biden said today in Austin at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

That line drew sympathetic applause from the hundreds of scientists and educators who turned out to see the 75-year-old statesman.

Biden is said to be considering a presidential run in 2020, and if that’s the case, his views on science could well be part of the platform.

He railed against “this know-nothing crowd who see science as a threat,” compared the Trump administration’s attitude toward climate change to “the Inquisition writ small,” and noted disapprovingly that the White House has left the position of science adviser and head of the Office of Science and Technology Policy unfilled.

Joe Biden
A crowd gathers around former Vice President Joe Biden after his talk at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. (GeekWire Photo / Alan Boyle)

AAAS’ analysis determined that the Trump administration’s 2019 budget proposal would have cut funding for basic science by more than 20 percent, but its hand was stayed by a congressional budget deal. Biden said basic research needs an even bigger boost because of fast-changing trends in science and technology.

“The whole Moore’s Law, digitalization, artificial intelligence, all the incredible things that are happening, are causing enormous anxiety among middle-class societies around the world,” he said.

Biden referred to automation’s potential effects on employment, and the debate over whether governments should respond by providing a guaranteed basic income to their citizens. But the bulk of his talk was devoted to the fight against cancer, which he headed up for the Obama administration.

His crowning achievement was helping to shepherd the 21st Century Cures Act through Congress in the waning days of President Barack Obama’s term (with an assist from Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., and other lawmakers).

That legislation set aside $6.3 billion for biomedical research and treatment — including $1.8 billion for the Beau Biden Cancer Moonshot, a research program that was named in honor of Joe Biden’s son, who died of cancer in 2015.

Continuing the cancer moonshot

Since leaving office, Biden and his wife, Jill, have continued the fight through the nonprofit Biden Cancer Initiative.

“We’re trying to create the cancer research enterprise and health care system that people think we already have,” Biden said.

The initiative has been pressing for more data sharing among researchers, hospitals and patients; better-designed clinical trials; and strategies to address the high cost of high-tech cancer cures.

“I see the day when patients don’t have to choose between keeping their homes and affording life-saving treatments,” Biden said.

He also gave a shout-out to new approaches to treating cancer, including the immunotherapy techniques being developed at institutions such as Seattle’s Fred Hutchinson Cancer Center, Seattle Children’s Hospital and Juno Therapeutics.

“I see the day … when you take your child or your grandchild for the school physical, they’ll be vaccinated against certain cancers, like they can now be vaccinated against HPV,” Biden said. “I see the day when they’ll be able to identify, through markers in the blood, cancers that haven’t even been developed yet.”

‘Wild West’ for cancer research

Earlier in the day, biotech executives provided a status report on immunotherapy research at the AAAS meeting. The strategies include tweaking the genetic code of immune cells and viruses to zero in on cancer cells.

“We’re now firmly in the realm of synthetic biology,” said Rafael Ponce, senior director of preclinical science for Juno Therapeutics.

Juno Therapeutics, which was spun out from a consortium of cancer centers in 2013, has been through a series of sharp ups and downs over the past five years. Two patients died in the course of a clinical trial for one of the company’s treatments, but another treatment has shown promising results.

“We’re really at the very beginning of learning how to engineer these cells, since it’s a whole new field,” Ponce said. “It’s like the Wild West.”

Last month, Celgene struck a deal to acquire Juno for $9 billion — which is $2.7 billion more than the funding that was set aside by the 21st Century Cures Act.

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