AUSTIN - Former Vice President Joe Biden called on tech innovators gathered at the SXSW Conference and Festivals to help end the scourge of cancer.
"Your generation could be the first generation on earth that goes through life with a completely different understanding of cancer as preventable … instead of a death sentence," he told a room of around 1,000 attendees on Sunday.
In an emotional, hour-long, speech, Biden recounted the advances of the White House Moonshot Cancer initiative he led and the challenges that lay ahead. The initiative was created last year by Biden's former boss, former President Barack Obama, and brought together a variety of experts with the task of speeding up cancer research and ultimately ending the disease. Biden's son, Beau Biden, died of brain cancer two years ago at age 46.
"You're the future," he told those gathered. "We need your help."
Biden, the 47th vice president of the USA from 2009 to 2017, was added just last week to the list of keynote speakers at the massive gathering of technology, film and music enthusiasts. He focused his comments mostly on cancer research, though he did offer a few subtle jabs to the administration of President Trump. Biden was an outspoken critic of Trump and his policies last year in the run-up to the presidential election. He briefly considered a run for the presidency.
Stressing the importance of government and public funding in cancer research, Biden lowered his voice and leaned into the microphone. "Your government, that many of you don’t like, is the vehicle for how much of this gets funded, by and large," he said, urging the audience to pressure elected officials to maintain cancer funding.
Biden said the idea for the White House Moonshot Cancer initiative came as he and Obama headed to the White House Rose Garden in October 2015 to announce that Biden would not be running for president. Asked by Obama if he had any regrets, Biden said he had one: "I would have loved to be the president who presided over the end of cancer, as we know it." Three months later, Obama announced the creation of the initiative in his final State of the Union address -- to the surprise of Biden, he said.
Since then, the initiative has organized a task force to explore the best path to eradicating cancer and enlisted the help of experts all over the world, he said. One of its most significant accomplishments was the creation of a database at the University of Chicago with the genetic data of cancer patients around the world that could be accessed by cancer researchers. The database has grown from 14,000 to 30,000 patients and accessed more than 80 million times by researchers around the world, Biden said.
That type of fluid sharing of information is crucial to making progress on finding cancer's cure and is where the innovators and code-writers at SXSW can play a role, he said. "Some of you are developing innovation and technology .. with nothing to do with cancer," Biden said. "But we need your ingenuity."
Biden was at times emotional, holding back tears as he talked about his son's fight with brain cancer and the frustration of having two hospitals — Walter Reed National Military Medical Center and MD Anderson Cancer Center — unable to share his CAT scans due to differing electronic data. Other times, his voice rose in anger, asking why Facebook engineers could create algorithms that detect suicidal tendency in users but researchers can't come up with a better cancer detection.
For now, it's vital that the Trump administration carry on the momentum he started and continue pouring money and energy into the cancer initiative, Biden said. Most of his hope, he said, lies in the innovators gathered before him and citizens at large.
"I’m optimistic about the American people," Biden said. "Given the chance, they’ve never ever ever let this country down."
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