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Sonoma vineyard

On Friday (11/10), I attended the Harvest Summit at the La Crema wine estate in the Russian River Valley of California. I promised subsequent posts to share some of what I learned. You can find the prior posts about the event by scanning through my blog at johnpatrick.com. This post from my Summit notes is about the Future of Cancer.

Carleen Hawn, Co-founder & CEO, Healthspottr, and Greg Simon, President, Biden Cancer Initiative discussed what it takes to accelerate progress in cancer prevention, detection, diagnosis, research, and care, and to reduce disparities in cancer outcomes. Simon is heading the “moonshot” effort to double progress in curing cancer. He said the three biggest challenges in getting the healthcare community to collaborate are culture, culture, and culture. He later called for a health attitude, which of course, I am embraced. Simon said researchers often don’t collaborate because they are protective of their work and have a top priority of getting it published. Another barrier is the price publishers charge to enable a researcher to read a new study. Why would you want to pay to read a study before you know if it is relevant or valuable? (When I published my doctoral dissertation in 2015, the publisher gave me two options: they would publish it for free if I agreed they could charge anyone who may want to read it, or if I wanted it to be free to anyone to read, I would have to pay a fee. I chose the latter.) Another challenge in cancer research Simon cited  is lack of enough standards to allow fast and accurate comparisons of cancer diagnoses and treatment outcomes. The good news is Simon is optimistic the Biden initiative will make significant progress.

One of the best books I have read is by Pulitzer Prize-winning author Siddhartha Mukherjee, MD, PhD. Dr. Mukherjee is the author of The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer. The title sounds boring, but the book reads like a novel. It reveals the history of cancer going back 5,000 years. Mukherjee is not only a writer and cancer researcher, but also a practicing oncologist and assistant professor of Medicine in the Department of Pathology and Cell Biology at Columbia University in New York. His book has had a positive impact on the wider understanding of cancer for non-medical lay-people. 

The Emperor of All Maladies was published in 2010. A lot has changed in the quest to cure cancer since then. The old approach to treating cancer was (and unfortunately often still is) to match tumor to drug. In other words, if you have ABC cancer then you should receive drug XYZ. The problem is one size does not fit all. XYZ may work great for one patient and cause torturous harm to another. It is all about the genome of the tumor. Even a large hospital may not have enough data to conclude whether XYZ may be helpful to a particular patient. This is beginning to change. The Oncology Research Information Exchange Network (ORIEN) is a unique research partnership among 16 of North America’s top cancer centers which recognize collaboration and access to data are the keys to effective cancer cures. The 16 centers are sharing their data on diagnoses and treatment outcomes. Now they can leverage multiple data sources and match patients to targeted treatments.

Similar efforts are underway including IBM’s Watson program. Artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning will play a major role in the future of cancer. In the not too distant future, the way in which we have been treating cancer will seem primitive.