Biden’s Comments on Challenges in Cancer Care Highlight SXSW Talk

Austin—Technologists need to develop the interstate highway system for healthcare.

That was one of the themes at the South By Southwest Interactive conference Sunday, in comments made by doctors, investors, entrepreneurs, and the former vice president of the United States.

“I can take my cell phone and find out movie times, or track a check in the bank,” Joe Biden said in a keynote address at SXSW. “Why can’t I do some of the things that need to be done in [the] fight to make cancer a preventable or controllable disease, rather than a death sentence?”

The former vice president’s talk was somber, as he described what he said will be the work he and his wife Jill will focus on for the “rest of our lives.”

Joe Biden’s son Beau died in 2015 from brain cancer. Beau’s death has been a frequent point of discussion by his father while laying out his vision for the Cancer Moonshot program he has championed.

“That’s why we need your help,” Biden told technologists and others in the audience. “You can make a gigantic impact. We need your ingenuity.”

Biden expressed frustration with what he sees as “silos” in both government and within the healthcare system. These isolated structures present barriers to cooperative efforts that could lead to the discovery of better cancer treatments—and even cures—more quickly, Biden said. “If we can break down silos that are preventing collaborations, we could at a minimum extend the life of a lot of people with cancer,” he said.

Biden described the difficulty his family had in trying to share a CAT scan performed at Walter Reed National Military Center with doctors at the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, where Beau Biden received treatment. “There was no way to share the result from that CAT scan at Walter Reed with the folks at MD Anderson, because they had different [electronic patient records systems,]” Biden said. “My son-in-law had to go in with a cell phone and take a picture of the CAT scan” to share with doctors in Houston.

But Biden remains optimistic that these roadblocks can be overcome, he said. Tools like immunotherapy, liquid biopsies, and advanced imaging are helping clinicians detect and fight cancer earlier.

Earlier on Sunday, in a “Connect to End Cancer” panel discussion, Ronald DePinho, president of the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, said the healthcare system has “a lot of parking lots of information, but they’re not connected.”

“We have clinical data divorced from genomic data,” DePinho said. “We have lots of siloed activities. We need to develop an underlying infrastructure that allows us to connect all that.”

(DePinho announced last week that he plans to step down from the top job at MD Anderson.)

But Lisa Suennen, senior managing director at GE Ventures, offered a different perspective. Technological tools are not the most important aspect of healthcare innovation, she said.

“If we forget about the human side of this, whether it’s the physician or the patient, we lose,” Suennen said.

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