The tech behind making cancer history

The tech behind making cancer history

You may be wondering what a cancer-centric post is doing on a tech blog. While you’re right to be skeptical, the truth is that tech titans are the unsung heroes needed to treat and prevent the world’s deadliest diseases. 

The momentum of the Human Genome Project has provided scientists the opportunity to explore human DNA, and engineers are using this information to create groundbreaking new therapies.

This culminates in an explosion of technological advancements in the field of cancer research. The most important being the rapid and inexpensive sequencing of the entire human genome – an invaluable basis for undertaking the development treatments that can be based on a patient’s individual tumor profile, rather than the cancer type as a whole.

A different approach: Precision medicine

Fourteen million people are diagnosed annually with cancer. Before scientists began analyzing the DNA of tumors, most cancers were treated based on their location within the body. Recently, however, researchers have shifted their focus – discovering that the location of a cancer is not nearly as important as the genetic mutations that precede it.

That discovery is the origin of precision medicine – the idea that looking at a the genetic makeup of a tumor creates targeted treatment opportunities, regardless of where the cancer manifests or metastasizes.

A definite advantage of precision medicine is that it can save the patient invaluable time and energy in deciding treatment options. For some patients, it means the difference between life and death.

How the treatment works

Cancer isn’t a one-and-done experience, but an ongoing journey into the unknown. A diagnosis is only the beginning, but a holistic overview is needed to better understand and precisely prescribe the best course of treatment. As Ronen Solomon, Head of R&D for Philips’ Genomics Oncology Venture, explains:

We see the genomic test side-by-side with pathology tests and CT and MRI scans. Along the path of curation, there are ongoing genomic analysis to confirm that the treatments are applied correctly, that the tumor is shrinking, and that the results are fully based on the genomic findings found at the beginning of the curation process.

Philips and its tools are key to enabling Ronen’s work on individualized treatment. With the right technologies to collect and make sense of biomedical information, the pace of drug discovery can be vastly increased, helping to efficiently develop a new class of tailor-made drugs.

For precision medicine to really work, you need the whole system – end to end. Ronen’s team, together with other departments within Philips, will be among the first in the industry to have a bird’s eye view of the curation process. With its integrated cancer care approach, Philips provides the tools needed to support patients at every turn.

For Ronen, in particular, it’s not just a job but also a way to honor his mother:

Ronen’s mother was diagnosed when he, himself, was an engineering student. It was then that Ronen decided to blend the worlds of engineering and health sciences together professionally. With a background in software engineering, Ronen is able to leverage his experience to accelerate the findings of genomics oncology informatics.

From my own personal experience, I know the potential value that these innovations can offer. I helped my mother through cancer treatment for five years and saw first-hand how long it can take to find the most effective drugs. I had to watch as she experienced a range of unpleasant side effects, and that’s something I wouldn’t wish on anybody.

If through our work we can make a patient’s life better by speeding up the treatment process and making their experience more bearable, then we’re doing something really worthwhile.

Unfortunately this wasn’t an option for Ronen’s mother, as the science itself wasn’t there and the technology just didn’t exist. To him and many patients at the time, cancer treatments were often a matter of trial and error.

The future of precision medicine

Genetic abnormalities not only contribute to some cancers, but also to conditions such as diabetes, obesity, Parkinson’s, and heart disease. While hundreds of genetic conditions have been discovered, much about their physiology is still unknown.

Current healthcare models rely largely on ‘reactive medicine’; a person becomes sick and then receives treatment. But what if the suffering of the patient could be avoided entirely?

In general, genomic medicine will evolve in that field where genomics plays a major role in curating diseases. It will also bleed over into lifestyle choices. Data and DNA can help you adapt to a healthier lifestyle.

Modern sequencing methods and understanding what is driving the cancer’s growth is dramatically changing the face of cancer medicine in recent years. This is the treatment of the future: Targeted, specific, curated to the patient, and powered by technology. Those predisposed to certain conditions would be able to make meaningful and proactive changes to their lives before symptoms manifest in the first place.

Ronen continues:

As research continues with genomics and better targeting of specific genomic mutations, side effects will minimize. We will also see more and more prescriptions with specific targeted medicine for these patients. No longer is it merely about using existing treatment types, such as chemotherapy and radiation, as our only options.

To make this a reality, we need to bridge the gap between health sciences and engineering. Big data and machine learning techniques, in combination with evolving knowledge about genomics, will pave the way for continuing iteration on holistic, preventative and above all preemptive courses of treatment.  

This post is brought to you by Philips.

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