SXSW: Biden details Moonshot program to battle cancer

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Photo Credit: Emmanuel Briseño | Daily Texan Staff

Former Vice President Joe Biden spoke Sunday at SXSW about the White House Cancer Moonshot program’s progress in the fight against cancer, and called for innovators in the audience to use their ingenuity to engineer solutions.

The Cancer Moonshot program was established in early 2016 to accelerate innovation in the field of cancer research. Biden said that he and his wife, former Second Lady Jill Biden, intend to devote themselves to this initiative, citing the devastating impact that their son Beau’s death from brain cancer had on their family.

“The passion Jill and I bring to this effort is driven by a desire to spare other families from what our family and so many other families have gone through,” Joe Biden said.

After being given “mission control” of the Moonshot program by former President Barack Obama, Biden met with leaders in the field of cancer research and learned that there was a great need for collaboration between different scientific disciplines and research institutions.

“I have two goals: injecting an overwhelming sense of urgency and changing the culture as to how we approach this fight,” Biden said.

Biden assembled a task force and brought every federal agency together to determine what contributions each could make. For instance, the National Cancer Institute used NASA’s knowledge on how to protect astronauts from radiation in space to try to design more targeted radiation at tumor cells.

The task force worked with the University of Chicago to construct the Genomic Data Commons, a large repository of information on cancer patients’ genomics, family histories and lifestyles. Scientists analyze this data using supercomputers to study trends in diagnoses and treatments. Under Biden’s efforts, the US signed treaties with several other countries to share their own data, increasing the size of the commons. Biden said that the information in the commons was made available to all scientists, greatly aiding research efforts.

“Let me define ‘hope’ for you,” Biden said. “Just since we started this aggregation of information with University of Chicago and this data commons, eighty million times that data has been accessed. Eighty million times - researchers all over the world.”

The Moonshot program has also created a tool that allows for individuals with cancer and physicians to browse every clinical trial in the US. Biden formed a blue ribbon panel with experts from academia, the private sector and research institutions to determine priorities of the program. He said one priority was early cancer detection, which requires making diagnostic tools more readily available, especially to underserved populations, and investing in new technology.

US Congress approved $1.8 billion in funding for the Moonshot program, with Biden dubbing the fight against cancer the last bipartisan issue in America. He said that he wished to work with the Trump administration, once it’s organized, to continue the effort.

Biden called for help from audience members, asking them to use their creativity to design more solutions in preventing, diagnosing and treating cancer.

“This is a dread worldwide,” Biden said. “I’m convinced we can make gigantic progress but we need your involvement… I am unwilling to postpone for one day longer the things we can do now to extend people's lives, and so should you be.”