Making the Cancer “Moonshot” a Reality

February 9, 2016
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Just over a year ago, in his 2015 State of the Union Address, President Obama announced the Precision Medicine Initiative, which was intended to usher in what he called “a new era of medicine — one that delivers the right treatment at the right time.” During the 2016 State of the Union Address, Obama announced the “Cancer Moonshot” to cure cancer, with Vice President Biden at the helm.

Just over a year ago, in his 2015 State of the Union Address, President Obama announced the Precision Medicine Initiative, which was intended to usher in what he called “a new era of medicine — one that delivers the right treatment at the right time.” During the 2016 State of the Union Address, Obama announced the “Cancer Moonshot” to cure cancer, with Vice President Biden at the helm.

Image Credit: NASA

Image Credit: NASA

Cancer treatment, like all of American healthcare, is at a crossroads. America spends more per person on healthcare than any other country in the world, and cancer care costs have been rising faster than other medical costs. Despite incurring the highest costs, we are not getting our money’s worth. America does not have the lowest cancer death rates.

One key challenge is the cost of developing new therapies. According to the Tufts Center for the Study of Drug Development, it takes an average of 12 years and about $2.6 billion to bring a new drug to market.

But here is the good news: we have the ability to change this right now. Harnessing the power of data can give us the ability to cure cancer and do it affordably. Artificial intelligence can cut in half the time it takes to bring a cancer-combatting drug to market. But in order to leverage the power of artificial intelligence we need to democratize access to data, so that the smartest minds can unleash innovation to transcend traditional medical research. Perhaps understandably, some medical researchers have divided the data sharing that may take place into symbiotic and parasitic data sharing — praising the former and denigrating the latter. The focus should be on the outcome: can data sharing yield actionable insights?

In order to cure cancer, we need highly individualized care, designed around every single patient with any single type of the disease. But in order to deliver that kind of personalized care to every single person diagnosed with cancer, we will need to leverage artificial intelligence — and that requires access to significant data that today is trapped in different silos.

In the face of this daunting task the solution is simple. Building a research engine that breaks down data silos to deliver insights for personalized care is the logical next step. There are over 115 million Americans on Medicare and Medicaid and approximately another 15 million Americans covered by the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) or other federally funded or subsidized health care. This means that more than 40% of Americans have health care paid for in whole or in part by the federal government.

With the stroke of a pen, President Obama could mandate that health care providers and health plans provide all health data to a government-designated single-purpose non-profit entity focused solely on making data available for healthcare research, and have this entity de-identify the data and make it available to all data scientists under a royalty-free license for research use only.

This will unlock more innovation than any amount of money that the federal government could earmark. However, this will not be without controversy, as many will point to privacy concerns.  There are, of course, significant concerns about health data privacy and security even in the absence of such a project, and we, collectively, must address these issues whether or not we build a data warehouse dedicated to the cancer moonshot and other medical research. In the context of this sort of grand public initiative, the symbiotic/parasitic dichotomy of data sharing proposed in the recent New England Journal of Medicine editorial noted above rings false.

It’s the government’s role to create an environment that enables innovation and growth. President Obama can leave a legacy as the President who transformed medicine and unleashed data science to cure cancer.

Nixon declared war on cancer in 1971. It’s the Vietnam of medicine. The moonshot is a useful new paradigm for this effort, which is sorely needed if we hope to turn the tide.

In the words of Marc Benioff, CEO of Salesforce.com, “It’s my belief that businesses are the greatest platforms for change and can have an enormous impact on improving the state of the world.”

NASA drew on private-sector capabilities during the space race; the government needs to do so again for the cancer “moonshot,” enabling a giant leap for humankind.

Image Credit: NASA

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