In a speech that started out subdued and got more passionate, stirring, and emotional as he went on, former Vice President Joe Biden told a packed audience at the SXSW conference in Austin, TX, about the year he spent leading the Obama administration’s Cancer Moonshot Task Force. He shared how those lessons have shaped the work that he and his wife, Dr. Jill Biden, plan to do with their Biden Cancer Initiative.
“You are the future,” Biden said in his first major speech on cancer since leaving the White House. “Many of you are developing technologies and innovations for purposes large and small that have nothing to do with cancer. But you can make a gigantic impact. Your ingenuity can have a profound impact on cancer.”
Biden devoted most of his address to the strides made in his “cancer moonshot,’’ which was launched early last year. He said his biggest accomplishment was breaking down “the silos’’ that had prevented government institutions, hospitals, companies, and research organizations from sharing information about cancer.
But a half hour into his speech, his upbeat message of hope turned into one of near frustration, as he reflected on the helplessness he felt when his son Beau Biden, the former Delaware attorney general, died of brain cancer in 2015. As vice president, he said, he had “the entire United States Air Force available” to him, but did not have in his power the ability for his son’s doctors at different hospitals to share basic medical information.
Determined to stay above the political fray in Washington, Biden did not mention President Trump and, in fact, sounded a hopeful note: “It is my hope that this new administration, once it gets organized — and I’m not being facetious — can be as committed and enthusiastic as we were” in taking on cancer. He added, “The only bipartisan thing left in America is the fight against cancer.”
That said, Biden is clearly moving his effort from the government arena and said he is organizing a nonprofit cancer initiative to “finish the work.” After he left office, he said, he was approached about such an initiative by prominent scientists including Eric Lander at M.I.T., who was co-chair of President Obama’s scientific advisory council. Lander himself has said it could be decades before cancer is cured.
At the time of President Nixon’s cancer initiative in 1970, Biden said, “we thought there was only one cancer.”
Biden said that “we now have powerful new technologies and tools like immunotherapies” that weren’t available only a a few years ago. He said, “These advances provide hope…at so many levels I’ve come to realize we’ve reached a new inflection point.”
But immunotherapy is still far from a cure-all. In a best-case scenario, Dr. Nathan Gay and Dr. Vinay Prasad recently calculated that less than 10 percent of people with cancer would benefit from immunotherapy.
In his appeal to the technology-focused audience here, Biden said, “you’d think that Facebook would have an algorithm,” so people could share more information on cancer. He challenged the audience to come up with the new technology.
“Perhaps most importantly,” he said, “we need to connect cancer patients and families and others with the same cancers. We can learn from each other, and share advice and encouragement and hope.”
Biden was introduced to a standing ovation by his wife, Jill, who said, “It is my pleasure to introduce my man of action — the man who always strives to make the seemingly impossible, possible.”