An Interview with Gregory C. Simon, JD, About the Biden Cancer Initiative’s Strategies to Improve Cancer Care

March 2019 Vol 10, No 3
Kristin Siyahian
The Biden Cancer Initiative builds on the momentum of the Obama-Biden administration’s Cancer Moonshot effort. While still in office, Vice President Biden was called upon to lead a “Cancer Moonshot.” The language for this effort was specifically selected to elicit the memory of our nation’s 1969 effort to shoot for (and walk on) the moon—something that seemed nearly impossible at the time. The White House Cancer Moonshot had a clear, but sky-high, goal: to dramatically accelerate our ability to prevent, diagnose, and treat cancer. In fact, the program aimed to achieve a decade of progress in 5 years by engaging federal agencies and initiating programs to establish collaborations focused on transforming cancer research and care.

In establishing the Biden Cancer Initiative, Vice President Biden and Dr Jill Biden strengthened their commitment to bring together all stakeholders in the oncology space to reimagine how the government, academia, nonprofits, and the private sector can better organize their resources to improve cancer care. The initiative works closely with patients and patient organizations, cancer researchers, cancer centers, research universities, governments, private and philanthropic sectors, and organizations including the Academy of Oncology Nurse & Patient Navigators to identify and address the critical issues in cancer prevention, research, and care to drive new actions and collaborations to find cures.

Gregory C. Simon is the President of the Biden Cancer Initiative, as well as the former Executive Director of the White House Cancer Moonshot. A cancer survivor himself, Mr Simon was charged with coordinating our nation’s collective resources, launching a concerted effort to improve cancer care. We had the pleasure of speaking with Mr Simon about the state of cancer research and care.

JONS:  Good morning and thank you for meeting with us. To begin, we’d like to hear how the Cancer Moonshot program evolved into the Biden Cancer Initiative.

Mr Simon:  Between March 2016 and January 2017, our Cancer Moonshot Task Force established over 70 collaborations in our effort to accelerate progress in cancer research. When Vice President Biden left office, he wanted to continue the work we were doing through the Moonshot, specifically by attempting to double our rate of progress in oncology from prevention through survivorship. With this goal in mind, we launched the Biden Cancer Initiative in June 2017.

The mission of the Biden Cancer Initiative is aligned with the mission of the Moonshot—double the rate of progress by focusing mutually on infrastructure and cultural issues that can make a difference.

JONS:  Can you describe the methods to achieve your mission?

Mr Simon:  The point of the Biden Cancer Initiative is not to fund projects, interfere with regulatory decisions, or to lobby. We do not give grants, we do not touch patient data, we are not a silo of genomic information. Instead, we’re looking for efficiencies that can be implemented and addressing cultural issues that might be slowing us dow­n— the brakes we are leaving on while we drive the car, so to speak. Our goal is to work with the different organizations to figure out how they can double what they’re doing. When problems arise, we’ll address it by assessing solutions that already exist. We want to enrich the possibilities to scale a ubiquitous solution to a local solution.

We focus on creating the solutions to the problems that we know already exist, elevating collaborations and new efforts that improve patient outcomes and save lives.

JONS:  What agencies is the Biden Cancer Initiative bringing together?

Mr Simon:  We work with everyone from big pharma to small biotech. Patient advocacy groups to academic institutions. We’re trying to engage all stakeholders in the conversation to channel synergies into collaborations that create new approaches to old problems. It’s all about system change.

JONS:  One of the goals of the Biden Cancer Initiative is to promote data standardization and sharing as well as promoting clinical trials. Can you discuss how you’re achieving these goals?

Mr Simon:  Our goal is to create a universal way in which people can share their data. We are reviewing the data-sharing models and identifying which ones have the best chance of scaling to a true data repository.

We have to think through the common data elements that reside in medical records and pathology reports that can be used to create standards for doctors and other medical professionals. It’s a challenge and a very difficult thing to accomplish, but if we address this, we can accelerate progress.

In clinical trials, we promote creating trials for patients, not just with patients. We’re focused on more transparency—what the trial is and what’s expected of the patient.

We’re also working to improve pediatric trials to make certain that they not only get started, but that they get finished.

JONS:  There are many issues related to enrolling children in clinical trials. That’s a tough topic to tackle.

Mr Simon:  We only tackle the tough topics. Pediatrics is a discrete community, but we’re looking at how we can help improve the clinical trial situation for pediatric cancers.

JONS:  I’ve seen a campaign called #cancerFIERCE on the Biden Cancer Initiative site. Can you tell us about that?

Mr Simon:  We’ve encouraged as many people as possible to go to the website and share their story as part of the #cancerFIERCE campaign.

While cancer is personal, the cancer experience is not isolated. We launched the #cancerFIERCE campaign to tell the collective cancer narrative through the prism of a broad range of cancer experiences.

#cancerFIERCE is a message of strength, resilience, determination, purpose, and hope. It celebrates the FIERCE that we know is in everyone touched by cancer—patients, families, caregivers, healthcare providers, researchers, and many more.

People don’t often think of themselves as inspirational, but after reading these stories, I can tell you they truly are.

JONS:  Last year, the Biden Cancer Initiative hosted several events called “Conversations with Dr Biden.” Can you speak to that and how that program is helping to shape your mission?

Mr Simon:  It’s important to the Vice President and Dr Biden that they understand what people are experiencing related to their cancer journey. We have hosted small group meetings where Dr Biden can sit with patients, caregivers, and medical professionals in a comfortable setting and listen to real people’s stories, direct accounts from people with cancer experiences who have something to teach us. These conversations inform our work and punctuate the urgency with which we operate.

JONS:  What does the future hold for the Biden Cancer Initiative, and how can our readership get involved in the mission.

Mr Simon:  Our future is to get all this done one day at a time, trying to have as broad a perspective as possible of how we can help the diverse population in America to navigate a cancer diagnosis successfully.

With the original Moonshot, the most people could do was watch because they couldn’t pick up a wrench and help build the Saturn 5. But this new Moonshot is a community movement. And as a community movement, we encourage people to do whatever they think they can do to make the world better for people with cancer.

One way to be involved is by sharing your #cancer FIERCE story. Another is by making a personal or organizational commitment to doubling the rate of progress—these commitments are new efforts inspired by the Bidens’ mission and designed to improve patient outcomes.

JONS:  Thank you very much for sharing your day with us. And best of luck to you and the Biden Cancer Initiative in your endeavors.

Gregory C. Simon is the President of the Biden Cancer Initiative. He previously served as the Executive Director of the White House Cancer Moonshot Task Force, a position created by President Barack Obama and for which he was chosen by Vice President Joe Biden in March 2016. Over 9 months, Mr Simon and his team helped launch over 70 innovative collaborations. He returned to the White House after serving as Vice President Al Gore’s Chief Domestic Policy Advisor between 1993 and 1997. He was the CEO of Poliwogg, a financial services company creating unique capital market opportunities in healthcare and life sciences. Previously, Mr Simon was Senior Vice President for Worldwide Policy and Patient Engagement at Pfizer, cofounded with Michael Milken FasterCures/The Center for Accelerating Medical Solutions, and with Leon and Debra Black cofounded the Melanoma Research Alliance. Mr Simon is a cancer survivor, having recently been successfully treated for chronic lymphocytic leukemia.

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Last modified: March 21, 2019

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