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How Big Data is Battling the Big C

Powered by analytics, precision medicine is saving lives

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Dell EMC

I shouldn’t be here. That’s the simple fact of the matter. At age 44, I was diagnosed with a very aggressive form of prostate cancer that had already reached Stage 4. The traditional “cut, burn, poison, starve” treatment approach bought me some time, although I paid for it in chemo sickness and lowered quality of life. When the cancer started growing again a year later, I had pretty much run out of options. Facing my own mortality, I decided to go back to work at Intel, transferring into the health and life sciences division in the hopes that I could make my final days count. It was a move that literally saved my life.

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Bryce Olson, Global Marketing Director, Intel Health and Life Sciences

The Health and Life Sciences group at Intel is deeply involved in applying technology to help the industry make a digital transformation. A key initiative focuses on an extremely data-heavy field of study, genomics guided precision medicine.

The ability to examine a patient’s molecular drivers of disease allows doctors to identify the particular genetic mutation(s) responsible for the illness, and tailor treatment that specifically targets that area. Exome sequencing, which is becoming more common in research settings for cancer patients, generates information for the ~20,000 genes that code proteins for our bodies. The data must then be analyzed in order to be actionable.

The first human genome sequencing took 13 years to complete, at a cost of $2.7 billion1 – far too impractical for crafting precision medicine. Today, however, it can be done in less than 24 hours, for $1000-20002.

 

Sequence Me

It turned out that Intel was partnering with the OHSU Knight Cancer Institute, providing high performance computing expertise to improve the speed of genomic analytics, and the size of the studies they could take on. I knew the path to precision medicine began with pathology, so I went to the Director of Pathology and said, “Sequence me.” The test revealed that my cancer grows in a very unique way, with a specific cellular pathway that was hyperactive, and responsible for driving my cancer.

Armed with this knowledge, my medical team was able to help me connect with an early-phase drug trial that was testing a targeted therapeutic that offered the promise of addressing my cancer’s specific genetic makeup. It worked.

Until recently, doctors were left to wonder why a drug was effective for one cancer patient but not another. Now, systems from Intel and our technology partner, Dell EMC, are at the heart of enabling this new era, where researchers and doctors can identify the unique genetic drivers and plan an alternative treatment strategy for each patient in their care.

Precision medicine is all about big data: once you get the genetic information off the sequencer, you then have to do the analysis. Those analytics help decode what's fueling that disease. And then you move to doing the clinical interpretation, to identify the right treatment path for an individual. It takes massive amounts of data, and going forward, a lot of artificial intelligence, to make this possible.

Not Just Cancer

The benefits of whole genomics precision medicine are not limited to cancer patients, either. Any malady that’s diagnosable by DNA is on the table, where you can see the molecular abnormality that’s fueling that disease. Rare genetic diseases are one such breakthrough application. In some cases, babies born with rare conditions - who only have days to be diagnosed and treated - are being saved. Other families have been searching for an answer for years as a loved one suffers, before being sequenced. Not all conditions have a cure yet, but having an actual diagnosis can be a comfort - and a starting point for developing a treatment.

I believe that targeted treatment is just the starting point for personalized medicine. By combining data analytics, artificial intelligence, and clinical and pharmaceutical advances, I think that the next step in the process will be to identify a condition before the disease ever appears. You would have sequencing done just like a regular blood test at the doctor’s office. And if any early stage mutation was discovered that was a strong predictive indicator for disease development, you could act early enough to thwart that before it became truly oncogenic.

In my case, what would have been nice is if they would have been able to say, "You don't have prostate cancer yet, but we can see a molecular driver or a mutation that is associated with a high probability that you're going to get this, so let's take action early." Ultimately, repairing defective genes in the future would enable a researcher to say, "Unfortunately this person inherited that bad BRCA mutation. Let’s inject them with a dumbed-down version of a virus that carries the repaired DNA." And then it'll go in and correct the broken BRCA mutation.

An Ongoing Fight

For me, I have to rely on what’s happening today. Recently, my cancer returned, having built up resistance to the targeted treatment I was receiving. My doctors are currently having a new metastatic tumor sequenced to see how our approach needs to be adjusted. But I still consider myself lucky that I had access to amazing cancer researchers who were exploring this space deeply, using the very best technology. Nearly 85% of patients are diagnosed at hospitals3 that don’t have the same access to researchers due to economic, geographic and personal constraints.

As both a technology professional and a cancer patient, I will continue to work with my colleagues at Intel, our Dell EMC technology partners, and our genetics innovation partners, to make this lifesaving option faster, more affordable, and accessible to everyone.

See more about Bryce Olson’s story here, and learn about the pairing of Intel’s Xeon processors and Dell’s PowerEdge servers to drive precision medicine here.

1“Human Genome Project Marks 10th Anniversary”, Live Science, 14 April 2013, https://www.livescience.com/28708-human-genome-project-anniversary.html

2“From 13 years to 20 hours, Genome Sequencing Breaks Record”, Genome Magazine, 01 March 2018, http://genomemag.com/2018/03/from-13-years-to-20-hours-genome-sequencing-breaks-record/

3“A Community Cancer Center Program: Getting to the Next Level”, American College of Surgeons Journal, 24 December 2009, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2831803/