Cancer moonshot: How to get there faster

The professional health community is on a mission to cure cancer.

Too many people are dying when we have in our collective grasp all the pieces to slow -- and even reverse -- this onerous trend. 

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Spurred by Vice President Biden’s Cancer Moonshot, for the next five years, there will be renewed urgency to develop new cancer treatments and therapies.

To advance this research more quickly, the Cancer Moonshot initiative should be tightly aligned with President Obama’s Precision Medicine Initiative (PMI).  

Precision medicine is revolutionizing cancer treatment by decoding patient DNA, finding nuanced differences at the molecular level in patients’ conditions, and translating those molecular differences into to personalized care for individual patients. For instance, with precision medicine treatments, survival rates for colorectal cancer patients have increased by 15 percent.

We made it to the moon with a singular belief that the mission was important and an understanding that all necessary resources would be made available to realize that mission. We can – and must – do the same for the Cancer Moonshot. The government is ideally positioned to bring together all the health, technology, and regulatory forces necessary to make this happen, and we need to capitalize on this.

Making the Impossible, Possible

Today, cancer research can be inhibited by a lack of institutional collaboration and by the fact that most data sources within and between health-related organizations are “siloed”. Too often, researchers, providers, healthcare networks, information technologists, and payers may work in isolation.

To advance cancer breakthroughs by further realizing the promise of precision medicine, we need a collaborative, multi-disciplinary data infrastructure that fosters the discovery process. In developing this infrastructure, we must consider the critical issues of scalability (enabling the infrastructure to grow with ever increasing amounts of data over time), security and privacy (moving beyond HIPAA to accommodate data sharing for different users) and global reach (standards, policies and incentives for data sharing across research groups, health networks, and geographic boundaries). Together, this will help us take steps toward making the impossible, possible.

Scalability

The infrastructure for this effort must be scalable. This means being able to accommodate an ever-growing size and variety of data to which researchers will have access and upon which they can continually expand.  In addition, high-performance systems and networks will be needed to manage and process the enormous amounts of data. Each genome can contain the data equivalent of 100 feature length movies. One must be able to analyze that data quickly to  get answers. 

Success will require tools capable of storing, processing and analyzing unprecedented volumes of information. These tools will also need to perform under expanding workloads, as new and complex data sources are included in the system.  Oracle, in concert with our customers and partners, has been supporting this type of research for years and continues to deliver these kinds of tools today, in the cloud.

Security and Privacy

In order to share more patient health information, rules and regulations around an individual’s data privacy will need to be modified, while they continue to protect that privacy. Security issues in this new kind of a global sharing infrastructure will require additional strategies.

It will be critical for the research community to manage patients’ personal information at very nuanced levels. Some individuals may want to participate in research, but may not want to disclose certain aspects of their personal health. Patients will need to be able to consider, “Can I ‘turn off’ information I don’t want to share, such as an STD or mental health diagnosis?” 

National consent forms for data usage and rules addressing data access privileges have been proposed under PMI. They should be used to ensure that data is protected and shared effectively, as well as protected from malicious intrusions.

Global Reach

We must create infrastructure and incentives to share data across the world as no single organization can command the resources required for tasks of the magnitude of “curing cancer.” We need to ensure that technical and regulatory standards support a high degree of collaboration across institutions, companies, disciplines, and researchers. At Oracle, we are committed to working with standards bodies and industry organizations like HL7 and a variety of research consortia to promote the right standards that enable data sharing.

To that end, we need to standardize how we discuss data. Without a “common language”, we risk the potential for misunderstanding terms lost in translation.

For example, if one is communicating a point in French but the listener only speaks Spanish, he/she may only convey the gist of point, but not the details. In matters of life and death – such as oncology research – this is unacceptable.

The Bottom Line

Precision medicine can help to unlock the data insights that bring the right cancer treatment to the patient, at the right time. It requires coordination of agencies organizations groups and individuals at federal local personal and worldwide levels combined with an unswerving will to analyze/interpret information and move from causal elements to overall cures.

In his first PMI addresses, President Obama discussed the important discovery of matching a blood transfusion to a blood type, and asked, “What if matching a cancer cure to our genetic code was just as easy?”

By aligning the Cancer Moonshot with PMI and  bringing all elements of our health ecosystem together, we can hopefully answer President Obama’s “What if?” with an historic, “Yes, we #Can Serve.”

Steve Rosenberg is General Manager and Senior Vice President, Oracle Health Sciences