Why the cloud could hold the cure to diseases


We constantly hear about programs such as Race for the Cure, Breast Cancer Awareness Month, The Ice Bucket Challenge, and other fundraising or awareness initiatives for diseases.  However, hearing a disease has been cured almost never happens. With billions of dollars being used to research diseases around the world, many people started looking for reasons as to why more progress hasn’t been made. Researchers re-examined their processes and realised two things. First, research methods have been largely unchanged in many disease-fighting fields. Foundations, doctors and researchers would conduct studies independent from any other group studying the same disease and draw conclusions from their limited data set.

One example of this was Parkinson’s disease, whereindividual doctors instinctively measured the progression of symptoms during well visits. “Nearly 200 years after Parkinson’s disease was first described by Dr. James Parkinson in 1817, we are still subjectively measuring Parkinson’s disease largely the same way doctors did then,” said Todd Sherer, Ph.D., CEO of The Michael J. Fox Foundation. With few data points and poor collection of that data, Parkinson’s researchers weren’t able to see trends in the data or delve into what treatments were making a positive effect.

The second realisation was that cloud technology was the perfect vehicle to share patient data with other researchers. Big data has been called the “next big tech disrupter” and many companies were already using big data to identify customer trends. Similarly, the scientific community started implementing the cloud to collect data and discover trends in patient and genetic data. Today, the Michael J. Fox Foundation is working on collecting the “world’s largest collection of data about life with Parkinson’s” via smart watches that upload patient data directly to the cloud.

Many disease-fighting organisations are working to implement the cloud as a data sharing vehicle. Nancy Brown, CEO of the American Heart Association, explains why the cloud is a game changer when it comes to curing disease. “To push new novel discoveries, we need the ability to allow scientists and researchers to have access to multiple data sets,” Brown said. “There’s a lot of data out there — data from clinical trials, data from hospitals and their electronic health records, data from the Framingham Heart study. Traditionally, all of that has been kept by individual companies or data owners.”

One beauty of the cloud is hybrid cloud computing, which is the ability to share data without compromising intellectual property. This way,individual entities can share data sets with the public cloud, while synonymously maintaining a private use cloud to store their proprietary findings. This way, everyone has access to the large data sets and can download, manipulate and then store the data it within their own private cloud as they do research.

The importance of the cloud is highlighted by the National Cancer Institute’s program, The Cancer Moonshot, headed by former vice president Joe Biden. The program is designed to double the rate of progress in cancer prevention, diagnosis, and treatment, and to do in five years what might otherwise take a decade. Of the ten “transformative research recommendations” created to achieve the aggressive Cancer Moonshot goal, buildinga national cancer data ecosystem using the cloud is one of them.

Beyond the data sharing capabilities of the cloud are the computing capabilities. Where desktop computers aren’t able to handle and analyse the massive streams of data that are collected, cloud computing is. Mark Kaganovich, founder of SolveBio and a doctoral candidate in genetics,explained the challenge that companies and researchers are actively working on, is building tools to sift through the “data tornado” and take advantage the “huge opportunity to use statistical learning for medicine.”

One real world cloud application is the sharing of how patients with certain genomes react to certain drug treatments. Eric Dishman, Director of Proactive Health Research at Intel,shared that when he had a rare form of kidney cancer doctors tried a variety of treatments without success. It wasn’t until his genome was sequenced were his doctors able to effectively treat him now knowing which drugs were likely to be most effective.

Currently, cancer organisations are working on sharing data on how cancer patients with similar genomic patterns are reacting to their treatments enabling doctor to effectively choose treatments for future patients. AsClay Christensen explains in his book on health care disruption, the cloud has the ability to take our current system of intuitive medicine and transform it to precision medicine.