Supporting a cancer ‘moon shot’

The people of Maine and of this country expect the president and members of Congress from both sides of the aisle to work together to improve the lives of hardworking Americans. The problems, both at home and abroad, are too important to be stymied by incivility, extremism or hyper-partisanship.

In his 2016 State of the Union address, President Obama called for our country to come together to tackle the challenges we face. I hope that the president will follow through on his call for cooperation and work in a bipartisan fashion, rather than resorting to executive orders that exacerbate political tensions and circumvent Congress.

I was especially pleased by the president’s support for increasing investment in biomedical research. This initiative has broad, bipartisan appeal and is an example of where we can work together to advance more effective treatments and even cures or means of prevention for diseases that affect so many American families.

Specifically, the president announced his support for a new national effort to find innovative treatments, and eventually a cure, for cancer. This builds upon Vice President Biden’s call last year for a “new moonshot” to defeat the disease following the tragic loss of his son, Beau, to brain cancer. In addition, Obama urged Congress to fund an expanded effort to wipe out malaria, which remains a scourge throughout much of Africa.

The “moonshot” analogy is appropriate. On May 25, 1961, with our nation reeling from the Soviet Union’s successes in space, President Kennedy gave a historic speech to a joint session of Congress in which he pledged that there would be Americans on the moon before the end of the decade. On July 20, 1969, astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin made good on that pledge.

Apollo 11 did more than plant the American flag on the moon and win the space race. The space program launched an era of technological advancements that is evident in everything from the weather satellites in orbit to the powerful smartphones in our pockets and purses.

In much the same way, a concerted effort to defeat cancer would yield wide-ranging benefits. Cancer is not just one disease, but a broad category of disease with hundreds of manifestations requiring different treatments. New therapies that boost the immune system are giving some leading cancer researchers optimism about the potential for breakthroughs.

Biomedical research that unleashes the power of the immune system holds promise for many of the most costly and devastating diseases. As chairman of the Senate Aging Committee, one of my top priorities is to increase investment in biomedical research in order to combat diseases that disproportionately affect older Americans, like Alzheimer’s and diabetes.

It is encouraging that Congress already is working together to increase these investments. I advocated strongly for the $2 billion increase in funding for the National Institutes of Health, the largest increase since 2003 and an investment that will pay dividends for patients and their families.

As the Senate co-chair of the Congressional Task Force on Alzheimer’s disease, I am all too aware of the tremendous personal and economic toll this devastating disease takes on more than 5 million Americans and their families. I co-authored the 2011 law creating the National Plan to Address Alzheimer’s Disease and sponsored a resolution calling for Congress to devote at least $2 billion per year to research as recommended by the expert federal advisory council established by this law.

Last year, Congress approved a $350 million increase for Alzheimer’s disease research at the National Institute of Aging, bringing the total amount available for Alzheimer’s disease research to $936 million. This is an increase of more than 50 percent and almost half-way to our $2 billion-a-year goal.

As this vital research proceeds, it is essential that we support the family caregivers who meet the daily needs of those afflicted with disease. Early this year, I toured the Stewart Adult Day Center in Falmouth, a wonderful facility that is run by the Southern Maine Area Agency on Aging and serves individuals suffering from Alzheimer’s and other dementias.

The colorful and appealing building was made possible by private donations and particularly the generosity of the Stewart family. The center benefits those afflicted by preventing isolation that exacerbates the illness, and it serves as a resource for caregivers by providing much-needed respite care. Late last year, the Senate passed the bipartisan RAISE Family Caregivers Act I introduced to develop a national strategy to recognize and support the more than 40 million family caregivers in the United States. The next step will be working hard to get RAISE through the House of Representatives in order to create that national strategy.

When Apollo 11 Commander Neil Armstrong first set foot on the moon 47 years ago, he famously said, “That’s one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind.” With the unified support of the president and Congress for investments in biomedicine, the small steps taken in research laboratories throughout the country can produce a giant leap in mankind’s fight against such terrible diseases as cancer and Alzheimer’s.

Republican Susan Collins is Maine’s senior U.S. Senator. Following a recent blizzard that paralyzed Washington, D.C., she and Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) presided over a brief session of the Senate to postpone business. None of their male colleagues were present.

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