Why Data May Be The Key To A Cancer "Moon Shot"

Jan 14, 2016

President Obama's final State of the Union address is in the books, and it was a speech largely empty of the policy promises that presidents usually make when they address the Congress — save one.

The president said he is putting Vice President Joe Biden in charge of a "moon shot" to help find a cure for cancer. Biden has gotten some of the credit for securing additional research funding now headed to the National Institutes of Health. And now, cancer experts are calling on Biden to unlock patient data that holds the potential to help researchers, but that is nearly impossible to share.

Statistics from the American Cancer Society predict 600,000 people will die from the disease this year, and 1.6 million men and women will be diagnosed. Behind each of those cases is data.

“That data all exists now in electronic medical records,” said Dr. Richard Schilsky is the Chief Medical Officer for the American Society of Clinical Oncology. “And that, largely for mostly proprietary reasons, don’t communicate well with each other.”

Schilsky says there’s broad agreement the nation could speed up the development of new cancer treatments if researchers could get their hands on larger data sets. Julia Adler-Milstein from the University of Michigan would like to think this new initiative will grease the collaboration gear, but she’s skeptical.

“These big priorities then have to get trickled down through organizations that have to make decisions about where to spend their time and money,” she said.

Adler-Milstein said momentum could come from new regulations and tough talk from federal health officials. It could also come from tech heavyweights like Google and IBM jumping into the game.

This week Vice President Biden said “the goal is to seize this moment.” IBM’s Deborah DiSanzo said to get there those who profit from holding data must make sacrifices.

“It is a hard problem. There’s many, many different cancers. Many, many different treatments for those cancers. So we also have to have a bit of patience with this,” she said.

Patience and a mix of carrots and sticks to make business sense for organizations who make money off of data.