Ways Technology Can Assist the Field of Oncology
By: Ron Lanton, President of True North Political Solutions
This year’s State of the Union address officially recognized Cancer MoonShot 2020, a national program that Vice President Biden has been working on as part of his efforts to find a “moonshot” to end cancer. Specifically, the effort has been to pair federal funding with data sharing mechanisms, which researchers can use to share information on various therapies to try for patients battling numerous elements of the disease.
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MoonShot 2020, the official name of which is the National Immunotherapy Coalition, is “one of the most comprehensive cancer collaborative initiatives launched to date, seeking to accelerate the potential of combination immunotherapy as the next generation standard of care in cancer patients. This initiative aims to explore a new paradigm in cancer care by initiating randomized Phase II trials in patients at all stages of disease in 20 tumor types in 20,000 patients within the next 36 months. These findings will inform Phase III trials and the aspirational moonshot to develop an effective vaccine-based immunotherapy to combat cancer by 2020.” The goal is to get oncology to the point where it is manageable, like today’s chronic diseases. However; with so much data surrounding this effort, it can be as overwhelming as finding a needle in a haystack.
Three companies are showing us how information technology could be the key in helping us decode possible solutions. Recently, IBM launched Watson Health Cloud to provide a secure and open platform for physicians, researchers, insurers, and companies that are focused on improving health outcomes. Specifically regarding oncology, Watson has teamed up with Memorial Sloan Kettering to “take information about a specific patient and match it to a huge knowledge base incorporating published literature and the treatment history of similar patients. Watson’s ability to mine massive quantities of data means that it can also keep up—at record speeds—with the latest medical breakthroughs reported in scientific journals and medical meetings. Additionally, because it utilizes cognitive computing, Watson continually ‘learns,’ thereby improving its accuracy and confidence in the treatment options it suggests.”
Microsoft is also entering the cancer research arena with its recently announced artificial-intelligence-powered solutions aimed at the disease. Although the company has several teams of researchers tasked with “solving” cancer, Microsoft says its overall efforts will take two basic approaches.
The first is “rooted in the idea that cancer and other biological processes are information processing systems.” Therefore, based on that assessment, Microsoft suggests that “the tools that are used to model and reason about computational processes—such as programming languages, compilers, and model checkers—[can be] used to model and reason about biological processes.”
Microsoft says its second approach is data driven and revolves around the concept that “researchers can apply techniques such as machine learning to the plethora of biological data that has suddenly become available and [can] use those sophisticated analysis tools to better understand and treat cancer.”
Lastly, computer graphic chip manufacturer Nvidia has announced its partnership with the National Cancer Institute, the U.S. Department of Energy, and several national laboratories in order to build an artificial intelligence framework. The framework, called CANDLE—or the Cancer Distributed Learning Environment—seeks to advance oncology research.
Nvidia says CANDLE will be used to “help discover the underlying genetic signatures present in DNA and RNA of common cancers that are predictive of treatment response from the mass of molecular data collected by the NCI genomic data commons.” CANDLE will also “accelerate the molecular dynamic simulations of key protein interactions to understand the underlying biological mechanisms creating conditions for cancer.” In addition, through “semi-supervised learning, CANDLE will automate information extraction and analysis of millions of clinical patient records to build a comprehensive cancer surveillance database of disease metastasis and recurrence.”
It’s exciting to see so many diverse groups working together toward a solution for cancer. Finding one, or possibly even several different options, will not only save the healthcare system millions but will also provide priceless benefits. While it remains to be seen how much funding will be allocated to projects such as Cancer MoonShot 2020 as well as other private investment, the life-altering effects of cancer can be felt regardless of political affiliation. Hopefully, the time is soon that we all can celebrate major breakthroughs through communication, cooperation, and persistence.
 “Memorial Sloan Kettering Trains IBM Watson to Help Doctors Make Better Cancer Treatment Choices,” April 11, 2014 https://www.mskcc.org/blog/msk-trains-ibm-watson-help-doctors-make-better-treatment-choices
 Allison Linn, “How Microsoft computer scientists and researchers are working to ‘solve‘ cancer,” http://news.microsoft.com/stories/computingcancer/
 Ibid. Nvidia Newsroom, “‘CANDLE’ AI Software to Deliver a Decade of Cancer Advances in Just Five Years,” November 14, 2016 http://nvidianews.nvidia.com/news/nvidia-teams-with-national-cancer-institute-u-s-department-of-energy-to-create-ai-platform-for-accelerating-cancer-research