Jill Biden visits Emory cancer lab part of ‘Cancer Moonshot’

The university won a $24.8 million grant to study possible new ways to fight cancer and other diseases.

Credit: arvin.temkar@ajc.com

Credit: arvin.temkar@ajc.com

First Lady Jill Biden’s voice broke on Friday as she spoke to researchers fighting cancer at Emory University about the toll that the disease has taken on families like hers.

“As a mom who watched my son die of cancer, the one thing I never gave up on was hope; as a mother, you can’t,” she said. “This work could change lives ... here in Georgia and around the world.”

Biden was at Emory Friday capping a two-day trip to Georgia with a visit to a research laboratory that received the debut grant from a new major research fund established by President Biden and Congress last year.

The university won the $24.8 million grant to study possible new ways to fight cancer and other diseases, using the immune system and mRNA technology.

The grant is from an initiative that President Joe Biden has dubbed the “Cancer Moonshot,” aiming to reduce U.S. cancer deaths by at least half within 25 years. It was also the first grant from a major new federal fund for health research projects called the Advanced Research Projects Agency for Health, or ARPA-H.

Jill Biden said ARPA-H was preparing to award another $250 million in grants for cancer-related research.

“For Joe and for me this is the mission of our lives,” she said.

Both Biden and her husband have recently had surgery to remove a basal cell carcinoma, a common type of skin cancer. The president’s son, Beau, who was raised by Jill Biden as well, died of brain cancer at age 46.

“It’s not just personal, but it’s — it’s about what’s possible,” President Biden said earlier in the week, prior to a meeting of cancer research advisers.

Government funding for health is crucial, advocates say. Although private companies fund billions in health-related research, they typically prefer projects that are sure things or that are already close to providing a product they can sell. Research projects such as Emory’s, that start from a newer idea and need a lot more research to find out if it will work, are harder for a private company to justify funding.

Credit: arvin.temkar@ajc.com

Credit: arvin.temkar@ajc.com

Dr. Ravi Thadhani, executive vice president for health affairs at Emory University, said the university’s researchers would “absolutely” be going after more ARPA-H grants in the future.

“We have groundbreaking research and innovative investigators and this is just the first of a few that are to come,” he said. Moreover, he noted, the cost to consumers of any eventual therapies created by the grant work should be lower than if private industry developed them and set the price tag.

Emory University president Greg Fenves said that “we are just glad that Emory University is in this fight to end cancer.”

The Emory project marries two advanced lines of scientific inquiry: mRNA technology, and using the body’s immune system to fight cancer.

COVID-19 was the first disease fought using mRNA vaccines, but researchers have for decades hoped to use mRNA technology to fight cancer and other immune diseases.

The work at Emory will be led by professor of biomedical engineering Philip Santangelo, who has worked on RNA technology for a decade. He hopes the grant project can create a platform that can be used to “tune” a body’s immune system to fight conditions including cancer, Long COVID, and dealing with organ transplant rejections.

Santangelo said that the ARPA-H model of funding “high-risk, high-reward” research projects changes everything.

“It’s life altering,” he said. “You get to really take risks ... scientifically, intellectually. If you can think of it and we can make it ... then we can go ahead and give that a shot. And that’s something you don’t get to do” in other programs, he said.

Credit: arvin.temkar@ajc.com

Credit: arvin.temkar@ajc.com