Before a packed house at South by Southwest (SXSW) in Austin last month, former Vice President Joe Biden outlined his plans for the White House Cancer Moonshot—the initiative he began while in office. In simple terms, the Cancer Moonshot aims to accelerate research efforts and break down barriers to progress in order to eliminate cancer as we know it.
“I’m driven by the desire to spare other families what our family and so many other families have gone through,” said Biden, who spoke openly about his son Beau’s death from brain cancer in 2015 and his family’s struggle to accept the diagnosis.
Biden added that cancer was the only bipartisan topic that Congress seemed to agree on when he asked senators and representatives for funding.
Although SXSW attracts tens of thousands of people each year to experience the latest in music, film and entrepreneurship, it is also, increasingly, a place to share and debate new health care ideas.
Biden even shared one of his ideas, which was a 3-D cancer atlas—a web-based catalog of lesions, tumors and cells.
The Connect to End Cancer panel series at SXSW included discussions on cancer innovation, easing the pain of the disease and its treatments, and how to improve a cancer patient’s journey.
“Cancer is difficult to diagnose and treat,” said Ronald A. DePinho, M.D., outgoing president of The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center, during the first panel. “MD Anderson is the largest cancer center in the U.S., and 80 percent of our patients come from outside of Houston. We see some 24 percent of patients misdiagnosed, 38 percent are misstaged.”
DePinho also spoke of a knowledge gap between staging and treatment.
“It takes, on average, seven years for a practicing oncologist to adopt a new standard of care,” he said. “MD Anderson publishes 10 papers per day on care methods, so it is hard to keep up with that and still provide high quality of care.”
On the same panel, members discussed cancer data: how to get it, how to analyze it and what to do with it.
Most of the rich data is locked inside free text fields and electronic health records, said Eric Lefkofsky, Groupon founder and now president of Tempus Health. Tempus Health is working to extract this data and analyze it using both artificial intelligence and machine learning.
The panelists also discussed bringing data from behind the firewall so it could follow patients from the hospital to the pharmacy to doctors’ appointments. Talk then turned to the cancer journey and its effect on patients’ families.
“I like the idea of curing cancer, but also focusing on the journey of the family; not everyone is going to make it out alive, so we owe them fresh thinking,” said panelist Mark Ganz, president and CEO of Cambia Health Solutions. “If we do it well with cancer, we will do it well with other diseases.”
Another panel focused on data networks. The challenge is moving data between practitioners and facilities, said John Donovan, chief strategy officer and group president of AT&T Technology and Operations.
“There is an evolution of securing the highway, and now, we are securing the on-ramps and we need to then pay attention to what is on the highway,” he said. “We need to safely trust the party on the other end, share only what is supposed to be shared and in the way it should be shared, and allow patients to receive what they need most.”
The same panel also considered the ways patient care can be improved by technology, acknowledging that one of the biggest challenges is competing with Dr. Google.
“Technology is standalone—it is interacting with the patients, but not with us,” said Rebecca Kaul, chief innovation officer at MD Anderson. “The challenge is how to create an influx of data and apply advanced analytics, how to intervene when appropriate and not deal with an overflow of data.”
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