Joe Biden Gives a Cancer Moonshot Update at SXSW Conference

Illustration of mesothelioma research

Former Vice President Joe Biden took the stage at the South by Southwest (SXSW) Conference in Austin, Texas, earlier this week to give an update on the Cancer Moonshot Initiative. Last January, Former President Obama announced the project during his State of the Union Address. Since then, the program has made some excellent progress towards its goal of ultimately ending cancer as we know it.

Better Access to Data

In his October update, Biden put a big emphasis on the need for more data sharing and being able to better manage the vast amount of data available in cancer research. At the time, he lamented on the inability to share patient data and test results among providers, a struggle his family had faced during his son Beau’s battle with brain cancer.

Biden highlighted some of the progress being made in that area during his SXSW speech. There has been an ongoing improvement to the National Cancer Institute’s Genomic Data Commons, which contains a repository of cancer studies. Until recently, the Genomic Data Commons had sequencing data for 14,000 patients but couldn’t be accessed by clinicians or researchers. Now it holds the information for 16,000 more patients that can be accessed by anyone who wants to use it for research. The NCI said they will continue to add data and better features.

Biden has also been able to negotiate agreements with ten other countries to be able to share cancer research information. All of this newfound access to data is even being helped by some Silicon Valley companies. Amazon Web Services and Microsoft have promised to host this genomic data in the cloud for several years at no cost to ensure widespread access.

Progress for Clinical Trials

Public-private partnerships continue to aid the program’s efforts. In January, the National Cancer Institute announced a new drug formulary in response to Biden’s call for more collaboration and accelerated development of new treatments for cancer patients. This new program, called the NCI Formulary, is a collaboration among NCI, pharmaceutical companies, and biotechnology companies.

The NCI Formulary will expedite the process of approving agents for preclinical research and clinical trials. This could help accelerate the development of new treatments as part of clinical trials, not only for major cancers but also for rare cancers like mesothelioma. Douglas Lowy, the NCI acting director, said they want to get promising drug combinations tested and accessible to patients sooner. Ultimately the goal is to shift the focus back to the research instead of the long negotiating agreements between companies.

Call to Action

During his speech, Biden called on the innovators in the crowd to get involved in the moonshot’s efforts. He said even those who are making technological advancements for fun or pure entertainment can aid in the fight to end cancer.

Biden told the crowd their influence could make a difference in preventing cancer to begin with. In the case of mesothelioma, a rare, preventable cancer caused by asbestos exposure, being able to communicate widely on the dangers of asbestos and where to find it could save many who are at risk.

“Your generation can be the first generation on earth that goes through life with a completely different understanding of cancer as preventable—a controllable disease, rather than a death sentence,” he said.

Hope Moving Forward

Many have called into question what will happen to the Cancer Moonshot Initiative under the Trump administration. Calling cancer research the “only bipartisan thing left in America,” Biden says he’s nothing but hopeful for the future.

“I’m confident we can get through it. I’m confident we can get it done. I’m confident that this new administration, once it gets organized—I’m not being facetious—will be as committed and enthusiastic as we were in the goal of ending cancer as we know it,” he said during his speech.

Trump has not specifically commented on the Cancer Moonshot, but Secretary of Health Tom Price has made a few remarks on the matter. Though he insisted the administration is all in favor of increasing cancer research funding, he said the problem in the previous administration was not making cuts elsewhere.

While Biden made note of his continued efforts to raise money to help fund this research, he emphasized the importance of federal funding. “Billions and billions of dollars come from taxpayers. Your government, that many of you don’t like, is the vehicle of how this gets done,” Biden explained.

At the very least, the 21st Century Cures Act will fund the Moonshot with close to $2 billion over the next several years. The Initiative has already made a lot of progress in research and data sharing, and hopefully that momentum can continue until we one day find a cure.