First, former Vice President Joe Biden got personal, talking about the way cancer affects lives — not just of patients like his son, Beau, who died of brain cancer in 2015 at age 46, but also of their families and friends.
Then he got technical, describing the efforts underway nationally to map individual cancers and their genes and to make sure data about those cancers and potential treatments are shared.
And he outlined how both the personal and the technical are coming together at the new Fred & Pamela Buffett Cancer Center in a way that will further efforts to enhance the prevention, diagnosis, care and treatment begun in the federal Cancer Moonshot initiative he once headed.
“We need to keep up this momentum that was initiated by the Moonshot,” he said Tuesday in Omaha during the dedication of the $323 million cancer center. “We need a sense of urgency infused into the effort to fight cancer.”
The cancer center, a joint venture between the University of Nebraska Medical Center and clinical partner Nebraska Medicine, will pull all cancer-related functions — research, inpatient and outpatient — at the two institutions together under one roof. Not only is such integration intended to make care and treatment more accessible for patients, it’s also aimed at sparking new ideas for care and treatment and for making sure they move quickly from the laboratory to the bedside.
The center is the largest-ever project for the two organizations and the largest public-private partnership in Nebraska’s history, combining $50 million in state money, $35 million from the City of Omaha and $5 million from Douglas County. The rest of the funding was privately raised. Donors and state, city and county officials who have been involved in the effort to build the center were among the roughly 450 people scheduled to attend the ceremony. The event also was livestreamed online.
The facility is named in recognition of a gift from Pamela Buffett, through her foundation, the Rebecca Susan Buffett Foundation. Pamela Buffett’s husband, Fred “Fritz” Buffett, died of kidney cancer in 1997. Fred Buffett was a first cousin of investor Warren Buffett. The amount of the gift has not been disclosed.
Pamela Buffett, who sat next to Biden during the ceremony, did not speak during the event. But she appeared in a video played beforehand, saying, “What it’s going to do for people’s lives, Fred would be thrilled about.”
The L-shaped center on the UNMC campus features the Suzanne and Walter Scott Cancer Research Tower, a 10-story structure housing 98 research labs; the C.L. Werner Cancer Hospital, an eight-story, 108-bed inpatient treatment center; and a multidisciplinary outpatient center with clinics, radiology, radiation oncology and a 24/7 treatment center. The center also features a Healing Arts Program, at the hub of which is the chapel-like Chihuly Sanctuary, given by the Scotts and featuring works by internationally known glass artist Dale Chihuly.
Dr. Kenneth Cowan, the cancer center’s director, said Tuesday that it was “incredible” to have a keynote speaker who really understands the problem that practitioners and patients face in cancer and who has been working to shorten the time it takes to get treatments to patients.
Biden told how he walked out into the Rose Garden after his son died to announce that he would not seek the nomination for president. “I said, ‘I have one regret about not being able to be the next president, in that I would have liked to have presided over the end of cancer as we know it,’ ” he said.
Then-President Barack Obama announced the Moonshot initiative in his last State of the Union address, and then repeated days later during a visit to Omaha that a cure for cancer should get the same coordinated scientific effort that saw the United States put a man on the moon in 1969.
Biden, noting that the Moonshot has not been picked up by the current administration, since has launched the Biden Cancer Initiative. He said he would soon announce a board made up of leading experts. The initiative, he said, isn’t designed to compete with other cancer research initiatives but will be a “convening mechanism” to bring researchers and institutions together to identify problems and solutions, starting with improving data standards to give researchers and clinicians a better way to share information.
Biden did not delve into politics. His visit coincided with the delivery to Congress on Tuesday of President Donald Trump’s budget request, which would cut the budget of the National Institutes of Health by 18 percent.
Mitch Osborn, who is being treated for mantle cell lymphoma, a relatively rare non-Hodgkin lymphoma, said bringing together researchers, doctors and patients in the new center is incredible. The athletic director and head boys’ basketball coach at Harlan Community High School in Harlan, Iowa, said he has eight doctors on his care team at the hospital.
“What’s happening here today gives all of us patients incredible hope,” said Osborn, who had been treated previously and received a stem cell transplant.
He was in remission, but the cancer came back. He eventually will need another stem cell transplant. Meantime, he’s living his life and continuing to work and coach around his treatments. “For my next battle, I’m going to have a world-class facility to go to and beat it,” he said.
Dr. Sarah Thayer, the center’s physician chief and a 2014 hire from Harvard Medical School, said she has never before seen such a commitment by so many “with the honest belief that they’re going (to make) tomorrow better for our patients with cancer.”
Dr. Kevin Dowlatshahi, a second-year resident in pathology, said he and others recently got a briefing about all the new technology in one of the cancer center’s conference rooms, which will allow larger groups of doctors and scientists to convene for “tumor boards” where patients’ cases are presented and discussed.
“It shows that this is the leading place for cancer care in the state,” he said, noting that pathologists diagnose cancers. “And it means a lot for the research side.”