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Biden: Fight against cancer lifts off with 'Moonshot'

At SXSW, the former vice president lays out how the government's Cancer Moonshot has helped foster breakthroughs.

Vice President Joe Biden, speaking about the White House Cancer Moonshot Task Force's mission on October 19, 2016 in Boston.
Paul Marotta, Getty Images

The fight against cancer thrives on new technologies, but also on old-fashioned cooperation.

That was the message from former US Vice President Joe Biden, speaking Sunday at SXSW about the White House Cancer Moonshot program that he got rolling in early 2016. President Obama made him "mission control" of the effort, he said, with broad authority to shape things as he saw fit.

What he saw was a culture not changing fast enough. There was a need for greater collaboration among medical and research disciplines.

"This Cancer Moonshot, when it was born, we decided to take a new approach to conquering cancer," Biden said.

It would also benefit from decades of scientific advances since President Nixon declared a "war on cancer."

Surgeons can now use cutting-edge robotics to allow more precise imaging, conduct more precise surgery and to remove tumors with less damage to the surrounding tissue. Powerful new technologies and tools like immunotherapy, he said, now make cancer cells visible to the immune system so people's natural defenses can destroy the cancer.

The Moonshot program has also drawn the participation of some prominent Silicon Valley companies. For instance, Amazon Web Services and Microsoft in October teamed up with the National Cancer Institute to devise a system for maintaining cancer genomic data in the cloud and making it available to researchers.

The NCI said Friday that those resources continue to gain data and features, including ways to access, analyze and visualize the information.

"The cloud technologies will soon make it possible for researchers to access genomic, proteomic, medical imaging and clinical data in one virtual system," said Tony Kerlavage, chief of the Cancer Informatics Branch at the NCI Center for Biomedical Informatics and Information Technology, in an email statement. "Being able to perform analysis across all of these datatypes should open the door to new discoveries."

In October, ride-hailing companies Uber and Lyft said they would expand their efforts on providing affordable transportation to cancer patients.

Those are signs of Silicon Valley's interests beyond phone cameras, virtual reality gadgets and dating apps. Medical research has become a booming sideline for tech's well-heeled leaders and hungry startups. Last year, for instance, Napster founder Sean Parker donated $250 million to create a research institute that will focus on cancer and immunotherapy. The Chan Zuckerberg Initiative is committing $3 billion over the next decade to an even more ambitious goal: finding cures for all diseases.

For Biden, cancer research has a very personal resonance. His son Beau, a former state attorney general of Delaware, died in May 2015 at age 46 after battling brain cancer.

In addressing the SXSW crowd Sunday, Biden cited the progress that the Cancer Moonshot -- an initiative aligned with the Moon Shots program at the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center -- had made in breaking down barriers among federal agencies. He pointed to collaboration between the Veterans Administration, whose hospital system had troves of cancer data, and the Energy Department, which oversees US supercomputing efforts.

"You technology experts out there,' he said, "you probably are saying, 'Well why the hell weren't they doing that all along?' But they weren't."

And then there's the growing collaboration among immunologists, virologists, oncologists, geneticists, chemical and biological engineers.

"For the first time, they're all working together, and there's recognition that by aggregating and sharing millions of patients' data -- like the genomics, family history, lifestyles, treatment, outcomes -- by using the supercomputer power we have, we can find patterns, we can now do, as many of you techies in the audience know, a million billion calculations per second."

The upshot of those calculations: They'll help us to know know, Biden said, why one treatment works in one person and not in another.

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