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Biden's cancer moonshot echoes in Duluth

Vice President Joe Biden launched a video moonshot against cancer in Duluth and more than 260 other sites across the nation on Wednesday, calling for greater collaboration and an increased sense of urgency in battling the disease.

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Participants at the Cancer Moonshot Summit listen to a video presentation from Vice President Joe Biden at the Duluth campus of the University of Minnesota Medical School on Wednesday. Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com
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Vice President Joe Biden launched a video moonshot against cancer in Duluth and more than 260 other sites across the nation on Wednesday, calling for greater collaboration and an increased sense of urgency in battling the disease.

"We're on the cusp of breakthroughs that can get us there," said Biden in remarks taped earlier in the day at the primary Cancer Moonshot Summit on the campus of Howard University in Washington, D.C. "The goal of the moonshot is to propel us forward today."

In Duluth, Biden's remarks were shown in an almost-full lecture room at the University of Minnesota Medical School's local campus.

But it remains to be seen whether the cancer moonshot, announced during President Barack Obama's State of the Union address, will be meaningful or just more Washington talk, local researcher Aubie Shaw said.

"At this point it's a lot of words; I want to see what really happens in the end," said Shaw, an adjunct assistant professor at the medical school and a consultant to Two Harbors-based biomedical research firm BRTI Life Sciences. "There's two big things that we struggle with. We need to get money to do the research that we do, and we also need to be able to publish."

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BRTI was one of two biotech firms represented at the Duluth summit that operate out of the same building - NorthShore Business Enterprise Center in Two Harbors. BRTI, founded by John Brekke of Duluth, developed a technology that enables scientists to study tumors in three dimensions instead of two.

The other is the Actives Factory, which develops pharmaceuticals from birchbark. Birthed from research at the Natural Resources Research Institute in Hermantown and the University of Minnesota Duluth, the company is ahead of the game on derivatives from birch, said Brian Garhofer of Actives Factory.

For instance, Garhofer said, the company has 85 kilos of one substance, betulinic acid. "That is probably 85 times more than the rest of the world has combined."

Such companies may not be well-known, but they give local research a significant boost, said Lynne Bemis, chairwoman of the biomedical sciences department at the medical school's Duluth campus.

"We feel really lucky to have those people in our midst and working with those high-tech companies," said Bemis, who coordinated the Duluth moonshot event. "Because that allows us to push our research into different areas."

For Shaw, who grew up in Eveleth, teaching is a full-time job, but the research she's doing via BRTI is her passion.

Shaw, 41, was diagnosed at age 6 with rhabdomyosarcoma, a skeletal muscle tumor. She was given a 30 percent chance of survival, she said. She attributes her survival to being enrolled in a clinical trial at the University of Minnesota.

"It saved me life, and I feel like I owe it back," Shaw said.

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She already had spent years researching various aspects of cancer at various institutions when she returned to the region to do postdoctoral research at the medical school. It wasn't long before she learned about BRTI.

"I was kind of shocked because it meets perfectly with all of the research that I have been doing," Shaw said.

Shaw currently is collaborating with Bemis in an ovarian cancer project using BRTI technology, she said.

She performs her research outside of her teaching responsibilities. The frustrating thing, Shaw said, is that she also has to spend a large portion of her time looking for grant money to support her research.

"At some point I would hope that what the vice president is doing ... is going to make it less of an obstacle so that we can just do the science," Shaw said.

In his impassioned, no-nonsense address, it seemed clear Biden had heard a similar message from other researchers.

"We have to change the culture of research that turns scientists into grant writers, discouraging risk-taking," Biden said.

The vice president, whose son Beau Biden died last year of brain cancer, is, like Shaw, a believer in clinical trials.

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"Patients should be able to seamlessly find a clinical trial that might suit a specific condition," he said, but fewer than 4 percent of cancer patients are enrolled in trials.

Online clinical trial databases have proven to be far too complicated for most patients and even for most oncologists, Biden said. So under the moonshot initiative, a new website has been created to help meet that need: trials.cancer.gov .

When the moonshot was first announced, critics said he was naive to think cancer could be ended in our lifetimes. The actual goal wasn't quite that ambitious - it was to make a decade's worth of progress in five years, Biden said.

Nonetheless, he suggested the moonshot could hit its ultimate target in the not-too-distant future.

"Imagine a day, perhaps when my grandchildren have children of their own, when the threat of cancer is a distant memory, when their children can be vaccinated for cancer as routinely as for measles or mumps," Biden said.

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Lynne Bemis, chairwoman of the biomedical sciences department at the Duluth campus of the University of Minnesota Medical School addresses participants at the Cancer Moonshot Summit on Wednesday. Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com

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