Genome Goes to SXSW 2017

By Lena Huang

The Genome team just got back from SXSW 2017.

For those of you who don’t know, SXSW started in the 1980s, initially as a conference to showcase local music. But as music changed throughout the years, so did the conference. In the 1990s, film and interactive conferences were added, and today SXSW is a convergence of ideas, music, technology, and film — all set in the funky backdrop of Austin, Texas. I don’t think I’ve ever seen so many fedora-wearing hipsters in one location!

While SXSW’s film and music conferences are extremely popular and highlight many new releases and debut acts, our Genome team focused on the interactive sessions, which last year drew in over 37,000 people from 82 countries. I am sure they easily beat those numbers this year.

The interactive tracks at SXSW cover a lot of ground. There are sessions on development and code, design, experiential storytelling, intelligent future, and virtual reality, just to name a few. We focused mostly on the health and medical technology tracks.

I attended an interesting session with Jack Gilbert, faculty director of the Microbiome Center at the University of Chicago. Gilbert’s lab is doing research on the microbes that live on us and in us, and how they may influence disease and immunology in humans. He said there are currently hundreds of human microbiome clinical trials, researching a variety of topics such as surgical infections, melanoma, antibiotics, and PTSD. We will be covering some of that research in upcoming issues of Genome.

I also listened to sessions on how virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) will transform health care. Just as this technology is becoming cheaper for gamers, it is also becoming more affordable for hospitals and clinics. VR is already used to train medical students in surgery and has been used to treat phobias and anxiety disorders. Look for an article on using VR for pain management in our summer issue.

There were also great talks on making wearable technology more accurate for research applications, getting virtual second opinions from remote doctors, and protecting privacy in an ever-sharing world. But to me, some of the best parts of SXSW this year were the keynote speeches.

Many attendees assumed Cory Booker’s opening keynote would be about politics, but the New Jersey Senator spoke about “the force that has shaped and guided our country to the moment we are right now, and that is — love.” Booker spoke of our divided history but also of how we came together to cut through the hate and divisions.

He also said that while technology and innovation are great, they are creating separation between people as we become more isolated and reliant on machines rather than each other. I think this will be an important issue in the years to come.

Jennifer Doudna, co-inventor of the CRISPR Cas9 gene-editing tool, gave a rousing keynote. She discussed the technology and its limitations, as well as ethical questions surrounding its use. And while CRISPR’s positive and negative uses are being debated worldwide, she did say we will soon see the technology used in clinical trials to correct the mutation that causes sickle cell disease.

Joe Biden delivered an emotional speech in which he implored the crowd to work toward curing cancer. “Your generation can be the first generation on earth that goes through life with cancer as a preventable or controllable disease as opposed to a death sentence,” he said.

Biden reflected on his son’s death from brain cancer and his decision not to run for president. He talked about the bipartisan support for his Cancer Moonshot program and its mission to accelerate the fight against cancer. He said, “I am unable to postpone for one day longer the things we can do now to extend people’s lives. We can make enormous progress.”

Biden shed some tears, as did the audience. That collective emotion was powerful, and something that I hope will inspire SXSW attendees of all ages to reach for altruistic goals, such as resolving cancer during our lifetimes.