Tech and the cancer moonshot

Vice President Biden said that advances in computing technology and changes in the culture of scientific collaboration will lead researchers to a cure for cancer.

Shutterstock image: beacon of data.

IT is key to the success of the Cancer Moonshot Initiative, Vice President Joe Biden said in an Oct. 17 status update on the project.

The $1 billion initiative, announced in January during President Barack Obama's State of the Union address, seeks to accelerate cancer treatment research by re-imagining cancer treatment as a collaborative enterprise that leverages digital and computing capabilities to spread, share and analyze research data from public and private entities world wide.

In a speech that accompanied the release of new progress reports, Biden said the world is at an "inflection point" in the fight against cancer, and the success of the moonshot depends on collaborative data sharing and computing efforts that span both the public and private  sectors.

Biden said that "by aggregating and sharing data from millions of patients… we have now what we didn't have before -- we have a supercomputing capacity" that amounts to an "army" in the fight against cancer.

"Change in the cultural system needed to win this fight is what we're all about," he continued. "So instead of 20 companies each studying the same thing and not sharing the results, they'll be able to see each other's findings and build upon the results more quickly."

The Genomic Data Commons, a cloud-based, publicly accessible database that enables scientists and researchers to upload, share and analyze health data, exemplifies this exchange of information. Since the GDC's launch in early June, over five million users have downloaded more than 50 million records from the database, which contains some five petabytes of medical data from over 32,000 patients.

Additionally, the National Cancer Institute's dashboard, stood up by Presidential Innovation Fellows, offers patients the ability to search for clinical trials through the portal, and has increased the ability of patients to participate in clinical research.

Biden said greater patient participation will continue to yield better data, cut the time and costs of clinical trials and expand access to health care.

The vice president also cited the partnership between the Department of Veterans Affairs and the Department of Energy, which matches over 500,000 medical records at the VA witch the supercomputing capabilities of DOE's national labs, as a prime example of collaboration between entities that are not used to working together.

However, Biden made clear the fight is far from over, and said even greater uses of technology and data sharing are necessary to make progress.

Biden said that Microsoft and Amazon have offered their cloud storage services to store the data of tens of thousands of patients, and that IBM has offered its Watson automation to work with VA and Defense Department health records and to search for all known literature related to cancer treatments.

Biden maintained confidence in the future support of the Cancer Moonshot because of the common, worldwide interest in overcoming the disease, and predicted "significant increases" in the project's future funding.

"This is the last bastion of genuine, true bipartisanship," he said. "Everywhere I travelled, I was told that data are key, and we have an unprecedented amount and diversity of data being generated daily."