Former Vice President Joe Biden delivered an impassioned speech at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies on Friday evening, congratulating staffers of the prestigious La Jolla research center for the strides they’ve made in their decades-long war against cancer, but also taking them to task for not doing more to help remove the institutional impediments to winning that war.
Biden — looking dapper in a grey suit and navy tie, as well a full decade younger than his 75 years — said his cell phone can tell him what movies are playing at a multiplex in Bemidji, Minnesota. Yet, not until very recently could it tell him where the nearest cancer trials were.
“How can that be?” he asked. “How can that be?”
If someone invented a football helmet that prevented concussions, he said, every sporting goods store would immediately offer it for sale.
“As the most brilliant people in this country, help me understand what can be done” to create more research cooperation, Biden said, “whether it’s legislation or changing public attitudes.”
Biden was on hand to celebrate the invite-only launch of Salk’s Conquering Cancer Initiative, a multi-pronged biomedical effort to eradicate the five deadliest cancers (lung, brain, triple-negative breast, pancreatic and ovarian). Biden and his wife, Dr. Jill Biden, head up their own Biden Cancer Initiative, which he described as “our response on behalf of every patient, every family, every community having to deal with a cancer diagnosis and the complex and confusing maze that they have to navigate.”
Biden’s appearance also seemed to have at least something to do with his personal friendship with Thomas Whittingon, husband of Salk Board of Trustees vice chair Marna Whittington. Biden revealed that he and the onetime Delaware attorney shared a suite at the University of Delaware for two years in the ‘60s.
“Tom, did you think when we were hanging out … in that suite that I’d be borrowing your plane as vice president of the country?” Biden asked Tom, who was seated at the front of the Conrad T. Prebys Auditorium. “It just goes to show you, you don’t have to be that smart to do what I do. Tom, it’s great to see you.” (Whittington replied: “It’s great to see you. If you weren’t here, I’d be in really serious trouble.”)
Biden scored another big laugh by introducing himself to the capacity crowd of 300 as “a second-rate Al Gore”; his fellow ex-veep was also in the audience.
At first, Biden heaped only praise on the Salk: “You’ve been the home of 11 Nobel laureates, an additional five Nobel laureates were trained here, you’ve consistency been ranked as one of the most productive science research institutions in the world … and I’m sure what will happen in this new initiative will make a difference for cancer patients around the world as well.”
But Biden was not afraid to bite the hand that booked him, opening raw wounds in both himself and many audience members as he talked openly and passionately about watching his son, Beau, die from brain cancer three years ago.
“My son was a trial of one, we thought, with anti-PD-1 and an injection of an adenovirus into his brain,” Biden said, describing the experimental technologies used to treat his advanced glioblastoma. “The doctors at Anderson (Cancer Center) were giddy at first. It just was eating everything in sight.” However, Biden said Beau’s blood vessels and spinal column were already too damaged from radiation treatments for the treatment to succeed.
“The difference between researchers and clinicians is not your dedication,” Biden said. “Not many researchers have a patient come up and say, like my son, ‘Doc, I know you can’t save me. I know I’m gonna die. It’s OK. But Doc, can you give me four more weeks? Just four more weeks so I can see my son speak for a lower school as he moves to the upper school?’”
At this point, Biden stopped reading occasionally from his teleprompter and shifted from a choked-up whisper to nearly shouting.
“You know, for people with a terminal diagnosis, days, minutes, weeks matter — not years,” he said. “But ya’ll didn’t come up with one additional breakthrough. If we broke through the institutional impediments that exist, a lot more grandmas could see their grandchild, a lot more dads can see their kids graduate or their daughter get married!”
Biden begged the assembled researchers, volunteers and biomedical VIPs not only to search for new treatments but to “also help us solve some of these institutional problems that prevent what is already at hand from saving lives.”
As an example of this deadly problem, Biden mentioned a promising new lung-cancer study he was briefed about on the plane ride over.
“It seems to me this study should have already begun to transform the way in which this disease is treated,” he said. “But it was pointed out to me that there’s a general understanding this won’t happen for about a decade, if past is prologue. It takes a hell of a lot of time … to be out there in the market, not because the drugs are not available, but because docs have always done it this way, this hospital doesn’t want to take the chance on this new therapy, or whatever.
“Now I’m here to ask you — which is beyond my brief — there are a lot of very, very intelligent people in this room. Why is this?!”
Biden also recalled being told by a University of Chicago doctor who complained that patients weren’t willing to share their genome-mapping data.
“I said, ‘Doc, where the hell have you been? I’ve not found any patient not willing to do that,’” Biden said.
In a rousing conclusion reminiscent of Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech, Biden said he sees the day “when patients don’t have to choose between keeping their house and affording a life-saving treatment,” “when those of you in this room can take your grandchildren in for a school physical and be vaccinated for certain cancers” and “when scientists here at Salk and other places work together to make the deadliest and the least-understood cancers treatable.”
“There’s so much promise and so much hope,” he said. “But as you know, we’re not there yet and with all the great work you’ve done, you need to develop the right systems as well.”
Biden ended his 50 minutes by saying he hoped no one was offended.
“No I’m being serious,” he said, “because you are the most remarkable group of people in the country, I really mean it. I personally am indebted to you, the entire country is… Thank you, thank you, thank you. We owe you.”
Although not a word was mentioned about 2020, it didn’t need to be. Equal parts funny, heartbreaking, combative and inspiring, this was the kind of speech typical of a candidate who seems up to the challenge of a tough and important political campaign.