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Author's profile photo Ira Berk

Digital Transformation and the Race to Cure Cancer, One Patient at a Time

The American Cancer Society estimates that in 2015 in the United States alone, there will be 1.7 million new cases of cancer, and 590,000 deaths.  Can we use big data analytics to do something meaningful about these staggering numbers?

Cancer is really many diseases, buried in our genetic makeup, triggered by our environment,” said Kevin Fitzpatrick, CEO of CancerLinQ, speaking on SAP Radio’s “Internet of Things with Game Changers” live broadcast on November 19,2015.   With big data analytics, we can study the DNA sequences of thousands of different cancer tumors.  We can relate this information to the lifestyle and environment of  individual cancer patients, and find personalized therapy designed for their particular needs.

Listen to the podcast here, or use your podcast app to subscribe to “Internet of Things with Game Changers”, presented by SAP.

CancerLinQ is a project of the American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO).  Built on SAP HANA, CancerLinQ is creating a database with information about millions of cancer patients.  “People are hungry for analysis of large groups of patients, which was impossible until now,” Fitzpatrick said. 

From 1990 until 2003, the Human Genome Project worked to discover and document the complete human DNA sequence with its three billion pairs of molecules.  At first, it was an overwhelming task to gather and analyze data for individual patients.    “The first person to sequence his genome spent a year and a million dollars.  Today it’s a day and a thousand dollars,” said Greg McStravick, GM and Global Head of SAP Database & Technology.   And, he said, the study of cancer is a perfect place to put this data to work.  “Oncologists are among the most innovative and exploratory physicians I have worked with.”

Before CancerLinQ, detailed data about cancer patients was captured almost exclusively through clinical trials sponsored by life sciences companies. With only three percent of U.S. cancer patients enrolled in formal clinical trials, the data for the remaining 97% was lost.  And unfortunately, the captured data did not accurately reflect the larger target population impacted by cancer.  “The three percent of patients in clinical trials are younger and healthier,” Fitzpatrick said.  Why?  This was driven by the economic forces of drug development, selecting patients whose data was accessible, and who were most likely to be able to complete the trials.

Another issue:  Patients living in remote locations are often excluded.  “Eighty-five percent of cancer patients are in remote locations,” McStravick said.  “We need to democratize their data, to include it in research.”   He explained that if more patient data is more easily accessible, it becomes possible to study more of these patients.  “We can change the economics so that life sciences companies can include a broader group of patients in research.”

Richard Ross, Director of Operations at CancerLinQ, spoke about the impact of big data analytics on cancer research  at SAP’s 2015 SAPPHIRE conference in Orlando.

Now there’s good news!  The growth in cloud computing is enabling researchers to study more patients.  “Cloud computing is critical for the volume of data needed to find treatments for cancer patients,” said Stephanie Huber of Deloitte Consulting.  It is becoming practical for doctors to collaborate and share information, and networks are forming to take advantage of the possibilities.  “Nantworks and Verizon have a cancer action network for physicians, made possible by the cloud,” Huber said.

This trend is global – not exclusive to the United States, and it is not limited to the voice of the physicians.  “We will build a network of oncology data, within countries and between countries, for patient-directed health care,” McStravick said.  “What must happen is that patients own their own medical data and manage themselves… We will move from Precision Medicine to Preventative Medicine, making better decisions, even from a person’s infancy. 

We need the patient’s voice in combination with the data, to know what the cancer treatment journey was like,” Fitzpatrick added.

Already we are learning new and surprising things from the data.  “Cancer patients are living longer, but we didn’t know the long-term effects of treatments until we captured the data,” Fitzpatrick said.  “Looking at patients many years after their cancer treatment has been completed, we can see that certain treatments have negative long-term effects on the body … effects that we can now begin to learn to avoid.”

And we will continue to learn.  “Who would have thought that leaders from SAP, Deloitte, and CancerLinQ would be united to find new cancer treatments?” added Fitzpatrick with great optimism. 

McStravick agreed. “A venture capitalist said, ‘We consider Health Care to be the last great frontier.'” 

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