Biden calls on tech industry to jump-start Cancer Moonshot

In his first speech since leaving office, former Vice President Joe Biden expressed frustration over the inability to share cancer-related data. Screenshot: SXSW / YouTube

Former Vice President Joe Biden called on the tech community to develop new tools that can have a “profound impact” on the fight to cure cancer.

In an emotional, hourlong speech at SXSW in Austin, Texas, Biden detailed the progress of the Cancer Moonshot initiative and argued that the tech industry holds the key to improving data-sharing capabilities and early identification of cancer.    

“That’s why we need your help—you are the future,” he said. “Many of you are developing technology and innovations for purposes large and small, fun and serious, entertaining and life-saving that have nothing to do with cancer. But you could make a gigantic impact. We need your ingenuity.”

Biden spent much of his speech lamenting the inability to share test results and patient data between providers, highlighting the struggles he and his family faced when his son Beau Biden--who died in 2015--was being treated for brain cancer. The former vice president argued that EHR data has been siloed “by design” and expressed visible frustration that algorithms on Facebook could identify someone with suicidal ideation, but medical centers cannot “find and test people at risk for certain cancers.”

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But Biden also highlighted some of the ongoing initiatives in the Cancer Moonshot aimed at making cancer research data more available to doctors, including the National Cancer Institute’s Genomic Data Commons that previously contained cancer sequencing information for 14,000 patients, but was inaccessible to clinicians and researchers. Since June, the database has added 16,000 additional patients that can be examined by “anyone who wants access to it,” he said.

Biden has also negotiated agreements with 10 other countries to share cancer research information with the United States and vice versa.

“There’s recognition that by aggregating and sharing millions of patients’ data and by using super-computing power… we can understand why one therapy treatment works for one person and not another and patterns for how these cancers develop,” he said.

Including patients in data-sharing was one of five recommendations contained in a report released by Biden in October on the future of the Cancer Moonshot initiative. Although some have expressed concern that the initiative could be at risk under President Donald Trump, Biden said during the speech that he is committed to working with the current administration to continue those efforts.