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White House Report Highlights Role of Big Data in Cancer Moonshot Efforts

October 18, 2016
by Heather Landi
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U.S. Vice President Joe Biden on Monday delivered the Cancer Moonshot Task Force report summarizing the work of the initiative since its inception 10 months ago and outlined new commitments toward the goals of the Cancer Moonshot from both the public and private sectors, with a significant emphasis on harnessing big data.

The report laid out the Vice President’s strategic plan for transforming cancer research and care moving forward. The task force’s report specifically highlighted unleashing the power of data as among the strategic goals outlined on Monday.

“Today researchers are working with an unprecedented amount of data, in part due to the explosion of genomic information, increasing use of electronic health records, and large datasets of clinical, environmental, and public health information,” the task force report stated.

“Under Strategic Goal 2, the task force is maximizing access to and usability of these data to enhance, improve and inform the journey of every cancer patient by: enabling a seamless data environment for clinical and research data through shared policies and technologies; unlocking scientific advances through open publication and storage platforms and next-generation computer architecture; and developing a scientific workforce capable of using the open and connected data environment.”

During his 2016 State of the Union Address, President Obama called on Vice President Biden to lead a national Cancer Moonshot focused on making a decade of progress in preventing, diagnosing, and treating cancer in five years. A Presidential Memorandum established the Cancer Moonshot Task Force, which was directed to unite the federal government in achieving the Moonshot’s mission through a focused effort to leverage federal investments, targeted incentives, private sector efforts, and patient initiatives, among other mechanisms. The memorandum also directed the NCI at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to form the Cancer Moonshot Blue Ribbon Panel (BRP) to bring together experts in a variety of disciplines to identify key areas of science for new investment at NCI.

In the task force’s report, Vice President Biden wrote that with regard to cancer research and treatment, the country has reached an “inflection point” due to a number of factors, such as more collaboration across research disciplines, technological advances and the wealth of research and healthcare data.

“Everywhere I traveled, I was told that data are key, and we have an unprecedented amount and diversity of data being generated daily through genomics, family history records, lifestyle measurements, and treatment outcomes with this data we can find new patterns of causes, earlier signs of cancer and successful treatments of cancer,” Biden wrote in the report. “We now have the capability to realize the promise of all these data because of advances in super computing power. Researchers can analyze enormously complex and large amounts of data to find answers we couldn’t just five years ago.”

The report also laid year 1 accomplishments and plans and outlined plans for year 2 and beyond. As part of these plans, the report highlighted a number of announcements about new public initiatives, public-private partnerships and private efforts focused on harnessing big data, sharing research among scientists and expanding preventive measures.

The National Cancer Institute (NCI), Amazon Web Services, and Microsoft announced a collaboration to build a sustainable model for maintaining cancer genomic data in the cloud. The information stored there will be available to cancer researchers through the NCI’s Genomic Data Commons and Cancer Genomics Cloud programs.

Lyft and Uber expanded their commitment to providing transportation for cancer patients. According to the White House press release, currently one-fourth of patients miss or reschedule their treatments and appointments because of transportation issues. Lyft has committed to expand its Boston-based treatment transport partnership to all 200 cities Lyft currently serves by 2020, to provide patients, particularly those from low income communities, with credits to receive free transportation to and from treatments. Uber sets a goal to connect millions of patients with rides annually, in over 500 cities by 2018.

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) also is involved in Cancer Moonshot work. NASA and NCI announced a collaboration to study the biological effects of particle beam radiotherapy, a novel technology that may deliver a more targeted dose of radiation to tumor cells

The Department of Defense (DoD) is establishing a groundbreaking new longitudinal study of the biological underpinnings of cancer. Using data housed within DoD's cancer registry and serum repository, researchers will work to identify new linkages between pre-diagnostic biological markers and various types of cancer. “Approximately 1,000 new cases of cancer occur annually in active duty personnel, and there are approximately 250,000 samples from the last 25 years available to undergo protein signature analysis for pre-incident cancer markers. DoD and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) will also work in partnership to link results with the "Environmental Quality Index" to further evaluate the environmental factors contributing to this disease with appropriate considerations taken to ensure privacy and consent of current and past active duty members that will be part of the study,” according to the report.

The DoD’s Joint Pathology Center will also explore digitizing and making available its repository of over 34 million unique pathology samples. Digitizing this vast and unique pathology resource will have numerous benefits; including allowing increased access to a diverse range of researchers and diagnosticians, and builds on recent efforts that combine image analysis and machine learning algorithms to improve cancer diagnoses.

The new actions and public-private partnerships announced on Monday are just some of the over 70 commitments made this year as a result of the Cancer Moonshot.

The report also outlined progress being made, to date, on a number of initiatives. The NCI has adopted a new dashboard that makes it easier for patients and doctors to search for clinical trials and increase the ability for patients to participate in clinical research. The dashboard was created by the Presidential Innovation Fellows in partnership with the NCI to maximize the user experience on the HCI's cancer trials website.

NIH launched a new partnership to bring together drug companies, major cancer research centers, foundations, and philanthropies to collaborate on early stage research –i.e. the basic biology of cancer –and to share all of the data. According to the report, rather than 20 companies each studying the same thing and not sharing the results, the participating organizations will be able to see each other’s findings and build upon the results more quickly. The report says that more drug companies are signing up to be a part of the partnership.

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