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Foster Speaks On Role Of Federal R&D In Finding Cancer “Moonshot”

Feb 4, 2016
Press Release

Washington, DC— Congressman Bill Foster (IL-11) spoke on the House floor about President Obama’s challenge to find a “moonshot” to cure cancer. Foster argues that the moonshot is achievable, but only because of many years and millions of dollars of investment in federal research and development.

Foster, who was a high-energy physicist for over 20 years, is the only Ph.D. scientist in Congress.

Video of Foster’s speech is available here.

Text of Foster’s remarks as prepared is below:

Mr. Speaker, last month, President Obama came to this chamber to speak, inter alia, of a “moonshot” to cure cancer, under the leadership of Vice-President Biden. This week the President announced specific plans to invest one billion dollars to fund that “moonshot.”

As a scientist, and as the manager of large scientific projects, I am naturally inclined to be skeptical of such bold claims from politicians.

President Richard Nixon famously launched the same “war on cancer” in 1971. Tragically, we continue to wage that war today. More recently, Andrew von Eschenbach, the director of the National Cancer Institute under President Bush, set the goal of “eliminating suffering and death from cancer by 2015.” We all know, unfortunately, that goal was not met. So why is this “cancer moonshot” any different?

Is this a moment like 1961, when President Kennedy stood before a joint session of Congress and announced his goal of putting a man on the moon by the end of the decade – and succeeded? Or a moment like 1971 when President Nixon declared War on Cancer and failed?

I believe that President Obama’s cancer initiative will succeed. And the reason it will succeed is brutally simple: science, basic science and technology that exists today, and did not exist 45 years ago.  Technology that was generated by decades of curiosity-driven scientific research – paid for by the United States Taxpayer.

There are many decades of federally-supported basic scientific advances that will allow the Obama-Biden cancer moonshot succeed: the ability to fully genome sequence individual cancers, the ability to manipulate the genome to produce animal models to study and test the basic mechanisms of cancer, and immunotherapy treatment, which was named Science Magazine’s breakthrough of the year in 2013, and which has been capturing so many headlines around the world.

Immunotherapy is an ingenious and revolutionary treatment that uses the body’s own immune system to fight cancer. Since time immemorial, there have been stories of “miraculous remissions” of cancer, where patients with apparently incurable cancers have experienced spontaneous and often complete remissions. These were often attributed to an act of God, or perhaps the moral character of the patient. We now understand that most, if not all, of these remissions happen when the body’s immune system, which has evolved over millennia of combat with foreign viral and bacterial invaders, finally understands the cancer as an enemy, and has all of the horsepower it needs to attack it and to clean it up.  And immunotherapy now gives us the scientific understanding of how to mass produce those miracles.

But this would never have been discovered without decades of sustained federal investments in R&D. Although the breakthroughs of immunotherapy rest on a pyramid of largely taxpayer-funded research, there are two parallel threads of federally funded research that directly led to this breakthrough. 

One was pioneered by Jim Allison, then of UC Berkeley, and Arlene Sharpe, of Harvard Medical School.  The other was pioneered by Lieping Chen of the Mayo Clinic. All three labs were using federal funds to study how the immune system is controlled; how it knows to kill foreign cells but not its own cells. This was a fascinating scientific question, but not one that was obviously relevant to cancer. All three labs are supported by basic-science from the National Institute of Health peer-reviewed grants. Which I mention, Mr. Speaker, because of the way that peer review is coming under attack by members of your party.

In the 1990s, they were all working on what have come to be known as immunological checkpoints, which are regulatory pathways that turn down the immune system to prevent it from attacking its own body. Even once this basic discovery was made, the established pharmaceutical companies would not touch it.

But in 1999, Medarex, a small biotech in Princeton, NJ, funded by the National Insitute of Health, took on the project. Ten years later, only after Medarex was well on the way to showing that their cancer immunotherapy approach worked in humans, it was purchased by Bristol-Meyers-Sqibb for 2.4 billion dollars.

There are now many drug companies developing checkpoint inhibitor drugs  to treat cancer, as well as other immune-system-related treatments for cancer.

So as I mentioned before, the Obama-Biden cancer moonshot will likely succeed, because of the technology and basic science that was generated by decades of curiosity-driven scientific research  –  funded by the United States Government. Or, Funded by big government, Mr. speaker as your colleagues like to say. Funded by a big government, directed by a by a vast, unelected, overpaid, lazy, wasteful federal bureaucracy. A bureaucracy that will save millions of American lives.

I often hear my colleagues on the other side of the aisle claim we don’t need to make federal investments in R&D, because if it’s worth doing, the private sector will do it. Immunotherapy is a perfect example of why that logic doesn’t work. The private sector took over, but not until researchers spent decades and millions of taxpayer dollars elucidating the basic science and proving this method could work.

I also hear my colleagues cherry picking studies that they can’t make sense of and label them as wasteful spending. Then trumpeting their success in cutting “wasteful” government spending. When the truth is those “wasteful” programs often lead to breakthroughs like immunotherapy. The cancer moonshot being led by Vice President Biden is likely to succeed, but only because of sustained investments in federal funding for research and development. As we work in the coming months to develop a budget, I hope my colleagues will keep this in mind.

I am the representative of U.S. citizens, Mr. Speaker, but one that does not share your party’s monomania about “small government”, or a desire to keep government small and indebted simply to provide low tax rates for its wealthy donors.

Because Americans know that small government does NOT accomplish great things, like sending a man to the moon, or curing cancer.

Thank you and I yield back.