Tampa's Moffitt center to play lead role in Biden's 'moon shot' to cure cancer

The hospital takes a lead role in Vice President Biden's mission of wiping out cancer.
Dr. Thomas Sellers, director in Tampa of Moffitt Cancer Center, contacted Vice President Joe Biden's office in November 2015 about a 'moon shot' to cure cancer. [Photo courtesy of Moffitt Cancer Center]
Dr. Thomas Sellers, director in Tampa of Moffitt Cancer Center, contacted Vice President Joe Biden's office in November 2015 about a 'moon shot' to cure cancer. [Photo courtesy of Moffitt Cancer Center]
Published January 13 2016
Updated January 14 2016

President Barack Obama has a new "moon shot" — and a Tampa Bay area hospital is poised to play a central role.

In one of the most memorable moments of his final State of the Union address Tuesday, Obama announced a new national effort to eradicate cancer.

"For the loved ones we've all lost, for the families that we can still save, let's make America the country that cures cancer once and for all," he said to thunderous applause.

He put Vice President Joe Biden "in charge of mission control."

The bold declaration was welcome news to Tampa's Moffitt Cancer Center. The nationally known research institute has already been talking to Biden's office about ways to realize the vision — and hopes to be a leader in the effort, executive vice president and center director Thomas Sellers said Wednesday.

"There are a number of areas where we can contribute, and we're anxious to do that," he said.

The Obama administration's idea of a bid to end cancer dates to October, when Biden announced he would not seek the presidency in 2016. Instead, he pledged to dedicate his final year in office to a personal cause.

"I believe we need a moon shot in this country to cure cancer," he said.

His son Beau had died of brain cancer earlier in 2015.

In November, Sellers wrote a letter to the vice president.

"Your challenge matches the singular mission of Moffitt Cancer Center, and we have enlisted many of the nation's most prestigious cancer institutions in this effort. All of us want to join your moon shot."

Sellers asked for a meeting to discuss the Oncology Research Information Exchange Network, a Moffitt-founded consortium of 11 nationally recognized cancer centers. The institutions had been collaborating on research to better understand cancer on a molecular level, and were seeing results.

Biden's office was intrigued. His team arranged a conference call in December.

During the hourlong exchange, the researchers from Moffitt discussed the barriers to sharing data among institutions and the need for a standard system for reporting research.

"We are all measuring the care that is provided and the changes that have occurred in the tumor," Sellers explained. "But the words we use to describe it have to be similar."

The ideas, he said, were well-received.

He and his colleagues have spent the past several weeks putting together additional information for the vice president on data sharing and precision medicine, a new approach to treating illnesses that takes the patient's genes into account.

They were "thrilled" to hear the president take up the cause during the State of the Union address, Sellers said.

"Vice President Biden has been very public in his statements about the need to support cancer research, and that was underscored with an exclamation mark in the president's speech," he said.

Sellers is eager to see the details. He hopes the initiative will include additional funding for cancer research beyond the recent boost given to the National Cancer Institute.

"It has been such a challenge with federal funding that we spent the last three years asking ourselves if this is the new normal, and if it is, how are we going to realize our mission," he said.

Sellers looks forward to continuing the conversation. He said Biden's office reached out Wednesday morning to discuss the next steps.

"It's really very exciting for those of us who worry about how to cure cancer to have that kind of a focused commitment from the government and the vice president and the president," he said.

Contact Kathleen McGrory at kmcgrory@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8330. Follow @kmcgrory.