It is beginning to feel to me like cancer has become as common as the common cold. Almost everyone I know—in every aspect of my life—is going through a cancer experience either directly themselves or via a friend or family member.
The grand challenge to end cancer has certainly brought significant improvements to treatment over the past few decades, but there is still much to learn about the underlying mechanisms that cause so many diverse kinds of cancer to emerge and how they might possibly be slowed or stopped. There is still too much painful experimentation and expensive guesswork involved in treating an individual patient based on what medicine can glean from randomized studies of large populations. Healthcare today really can't know the individual in his or her genetic and disease complexity, and thus, often fails to deliver a treatment protocol with precision or positive results.
From roulette to precision
As a cancer patient advocate for more than two decades, I have witnessed firsthand what the lack of precision brings us. It leads to a kind of "diagnosis and drug cocktail roulette," as one oncologist described it to me years ago, because physicians lack the tools to really understand an individual's case. Thus, the grand challenge for thousands of patients I have worked with has been to survive the experimentation, the trials, and the side effects from the treatment. We all laugh but also cringe at the all-too-common mantra: "It's not the disease you have to worry about, it's the cure!" We must give medicine the means to customize cancer care—and all care—for each and every one of us.
Given these challenges, I am excited about today’s announcement that Intel and Oregon Health & Science University (OHSU) have formed a multi-year strategic collaboration to explore this kind of individually targeted cancer therapy. We will deploy next-generation computing to help solve the data-intensive challenges that personalized medicine for cancer really requires. Very complex problems—like developing the ability to “turn off” the spread of cancer in a particular person—demand multidisciplinary teams of experts working side by side. Together, Intel’s engineers and OHSU’s biomedical experts are optimizing supercomputing clusters and software to isolate the genetic variations that contribute to the root causes of illness.
From weeks to hours
For more than a decade, Intel technologists and social scientists have worked with OHSU (my first clinical fieldwork for Intel was in several OHSU hospitals and clinics back in 1999!) to move toward a vision of what I call "Personal Health." Our prior work together has focused on two of the three pillars of Personal Health: care anywhere and care networking. We have developed technologies and care models for helping to care for people—especially seniors—in their own homes through telehealth, remote patient monitoring, online coaching, intelligent prompting, and care coordination of virtual, networked teams.
Today's announcement continues our innovation partnership with OHSU and focuses on the third pillar of Personal Health: care customization. Scientists can now gather billions of data points on how a specific patient’s cells are malfunctioning. Genetic abnormalities that cause these tumors manifest differently in each of us. What’s more, even a healthy human body creates millions of these mutations. So it’s an enormous scientific challenge to determine, for each individual, which mutations are relevant in creating "my" disease. But that's where medicine must go.
We're bringing together Intel’s strengths in developing energy-efficient, extreme-scale computing solutions with OHSU’s pioneering work in imaging an individual's complex biological information in four dimensions (three-dimensional space and time). The calculations required to advance in this field are mind-boggling. Today, it takes weeks to analyze this information for an individual, but through this collaboration, we hope to shorten the data-crunching from weeks to hours and bring the costs down to something that can be clinically viable for every patient.
Digging into the ‘circuitry’ of cancer
If we succeed, this would mean more tests can be performed in a given time, with hopefully quicker discoveries. Eventually, this all leads to the promise of highly precise diagnostic tests to customize care for someone going through cancer because we can now understand that person’s particular mutations in enormous detail. But our joint team plans to do research not only into the mutations but also the "circuitry" that enables malignant cells to spread. The ultimate hope here is to learn how, for a specific individual, this circuitry can be “turned off” to stop the spread of cancer cells!
I know well what these kinds of breakthroughs could mean for patients. I have experienced my own "roulette game" of trials and experimentation for kidney disease for almost 25 years. In fact, I write this blog about our new OHSU-Intel collaboration from a hospital bed, as I recover from a routine biopsy of my new kidney transplant to make sure that it continues to do well. One of the things that helped get me to this amazing state of normal kidney function and good health again was having my whole genome sequenced. It, too, took weeks of computing and then months upon months of analysis to make sense of my own unique case. Today, these tools are too slow, too expensive, and too rare—I want to make sure everyone has access to the kind of customized care that I lucked into.
Of course, there are no guarantees in this type of grand endeavor. We cannot know now how successful such investigations will be, or how soon average patients will benefit. But we do know that it is high time time to end the dangerous roulette game of diagnoses and drug cocktails that cancer patients must endure. It is time to stop the guesswork by giving physicians the tools to deliver true care customization for an individual. It is time to end the war on cancer by ending cancer once and for all. I hope and believe that this pioneering collaboration between Intel and OHSU will make significant contributions to these ends. And that one day these kinds of efforts will help make "cancer" one of those historical diseases that future generations will have heard about but not really understand because they have never seen anyone go through it.