Tuesday, February 25, 2020

Fighting cancer with data

Feb 07. 2020
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By Santhosh Viswanathan
Special to The Nation

Cancer remains one of the world’s biggest problems, with approximately 18 million cancer cases and 9.6 million deaths reported in 2018 (footnote 1).

Contributing to these numbers is a global population that is both growing and ageing, as well as the changing prevalence of certain causes of cancer linked to social and economic development the world over.

While we have seen some decreased incidence rates for lung and cervical cancers, most countries are still faced with an increase in the absolute number of cancer cases diagnosed, requiring treatment and care.

Bottom line, the clock is ticking, and there is an urgent need to accelerate our efforts in finding new treatment methods and hopefully, a cure. And while we’ve been placing our bets on technology to help in this quest, perhaps what is also needed is a different perspective on the issue of how to approach the problem at hand.

That is exactly what one of our colleagues at Intel, Bryce Olson, chose to do.

In 2014, Bryce was diagnosed with a very aggressive stage-four prostate cancer and was told that he had less than two years to live. Having a young daughter who was still in primary school, Bryce did not want to give up. He went through all the standard treatments that you can get for cancer – radiation, surgery, and chemotherapy; none of it worked.

We live in a time where technology is already being used in medical research for the purposes of speeding up genomics sequencing. At the same time, the medical industry was also exploring precision medicine: The ability to provide a customised series of treatments, tailored to the specific patient, based on his or her genetic context.

Bryce realised that with the combination of “genomic sequencing and precision medicine”, he had a chance to fight cancer. He went to his doctors and said: “Sequence me!”

The genomics sequence of one’s normal tissue and the tumour is compared. The differences between the DNA building blocks of the two, or in other words, the cancer drivers, are then identified.

Once these cancer drivers have been identified, there are three insights that one gets: Whether there is a treatment for the unique driver of disease for that cancer type; whether there is a treatment for different cancer types with the same genetics driver; and whether there are any clinical trials or new treatments that are being developed that may be a fit to cure the disease.

For Bryce, tapping into genomics sequencing has helped to shorten his diagnostic journey, eliminate the need for repeated diagnostic procedures, and reduce reliance on one-size-fits-all treatments. Essentially, he fought cancer with data and insights derived by sequencing his DNA. This precision medicine approach helped send his cancer into remission for several years, as the insights it provided to the doctors enabled them to determine the most appropriate treatment.

With the understanding of the potential of genomic sequencing, Bryce inspired his colleagues at Intel to continue to optimize the technology to accelerate the process of genomic sequencing. Using this technology, the entire process of genomics sequencing, can now be done in just one day at a cost of approximately US$1,000 (approx Bt31,000). In comparison, the Human Genome Project took approximately 13 years and US$2.7 billion to complete. The processor and technologies behind it will further help decrease the cost and the time to sequence our DNAs, thereby enabling everyone in the world to have access to it.

To further scale the delivery of genetic and genomic services, the team has also built the first clinical-grade, HIPAA-compliant chatbot called Gia (Genomic Information Assistant), which educates cancer patients about the power of genomics, answers their questions, and helps them take the next steps towards improving their outcomes.

Bryce’s story shows us the potential of genomic sequencing in enabling medical professionals to respond more effectively to diseases, and in a more personalised manner. However, collaborative efforts are needed across the world between companies, research institutions, hospitals, and universities to find a new way to provide the right treatment to the right person at the right time.

Unfortunately, Bryce’s cancer has returned, but our erstwhile colleague remains unperturbed. Knowing what he now knows, Bryce and Intel, are now working with the Broad Institute and other leaders in the field of advanced cancer research to use artificial intelligence-powered by Intel technology to discover new, innovative solutions that can help him and millions of others like him around the world. It’s time to leave our fears behind and remember the magic words “sequence me”.

[1] World Cancer Research Fund’s Worldwide Cancer Data 2018

Santhosh Viswanathan is Managing Director, Intel Asia-Pacific and Japan Territory.


 Santhosh Viswanathan, Managing Director, Intel Asia-Pacific and Japan Territory



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