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Thank Technology: Oncology’s Golden Age Is Here

by Fred Martin

Blog

To my mom, sister, father-in-law, and late aunt, I promise this: The 2020s will be a breakthrough decade for oncology.

For me, cancer isn’t some abstract concept. Multiple members of my family are alive today thanks to advancements in breast and esophageal cancer treatment. After watching our friends’ son pass away from pediatric cancer, my husband joined the board of Joedance, a film festival that supports children’s cancer research.

Forgive me for dwelling on the past. Let’s look ahead to what Medrio’s founder, Mike Novotny, calls the golden age of oncology.

Cancer’s Computing Revolution

The trajectory of oncology looks a lot like that of computers. Not that long ago, companies spent millions on giant, slow mainframe computers. Today, we use laptops that cost a few hundred dollars.

Compare that to colon cancer screening. Until recently, patients over 50 had to visit their doctor every year for an invasive checkup. Results were reviewed by specialists and reports took weeks. These days, at-home tests like Cologuard are inexpensive and 94% accurate.

That same dynamic is playing out in precision medicine. Mapping the human genome took 15 years and $2.7 billion. Today, it can be done for around $3,000, opening the door to individualized, genetically grounded treatments.

For families with a history of cancer, including mine, genomic advances in oncology are key. But understand how different patients respond to treatments, we need more and better data.

Data Makes the Difference

Scaling data collection and analysis is the biggest challenge oncologists face today. The good news is that we have more tools than ever at our disposal.

One of those is decentralized trials, Medrio’s area of expertise. Our software allows patients to participate from anywhere. And if a researcher inputs the wrong parameters, adjusting them takes a few clicks rather than piles of paperwork. We make clinical trials easier to conduct, more accurate, and less costly.

Another exciting one is artificial intelligence. Machine learning models can spot trends in oncology data, including genetic risk factors, faster and less expensively than human analysts ever could. Troves of old studies will be re-reviewed by machines in the 2020s, resulting in breakthroughs we can’t even guess at today.

Everywhere I look, technology is revolutionizing oncology. Much of that is happening behind the scenes. But since the rise of social media, patients have also realized they can use it to push cancer research forward.

The Community Component

As has always been true of cancer research, enough patients must stand to benefit from a study for it to get the green light. The primary challenge is identification: Patients are often unaware of studies, and likewise, study sponsors are unaware of them.

The reality is, just 8% of cancer patients participate in clinical trials. There are multiple reasons for that — the key ones, which I discuss elsewhere in greater depth, are geographic distance, lack of healthcare literacy, and systemic distrust — but social media is helping enormously.

Now, patients are banding together online. They’re forming communities not only to support each other but to prove to oncologists that treating their common cancer can be profitable.

The best part is, this trend is intersecting with decreasing study costs. Tools like Medrio’s play a role in that, but they’re only part of the story. Oncology is also benefiting from advantages of scale: More than a third of all clinical trials are now cancer-related.

Clinical trials advance oncology, but they also act as lifelines for those fighting cancer. And while emerging treatments come with risks, what patient wouldn’t take them for a few extra years with family?

The Challenges of COVID-19

To be sure, cancer treatments can be as bad as the disease itself. Watching my mom go through chemotherapy and radiation was awful. But today, she’s not just alive, but cancer-free at 81.

Particularly right now, not all cancer patients are so fortunate. Everyone is after the blockbuster COVID-19 drug that will save humanity, causing resources to be shifted away from oncology.

Many experimental treatments, which require in-person administration and monitoring, have been put on pause. Some cancer patients can’t even see their doctor.

Of course, some studies can be conducted virtually. Any that can be, should be. Millions of other cancer patients are eying the clock, hoping their trials will resume in time.

Whatever happens with the coronavirus crisis, cancer treatment must and will move forward. The tailwinds of technology, and the dedication of patients and oncologists around the world, will make sure of it.

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