Transforming health care in the digital age

April 28, 2015

photo of panel on health care in the digital ageAdvances in genome sequencing and the use of digital technologies to store and analyze the data have helped to create a golden age in medical innovation.

Five exemplary leaders in digital health technology provided examples that boost optimism about today’s fast-changing health-care and research worlds during the “Health Care in the Digital Age” panel on Monday at the Milken Institute Global Conference.

Michael Milken, chairman of the Milken Institute and FasterCures, moderated the conversation that focused on the transformations in patient data from information controlled by physicians to the “big data” we see in today’s digital formats that are owned by patients.

Much of the progress has grown from the completion of human genome sequencing in 2003. Information that gene mapping provides allows for pan-disease analysis and has led to the development of precision medicine, Anna Barker, a FasterCures fellow and a director of multiple initiatives at Arizona State University, told the audience. Once researchers learn how to monitor and mine these data, we will stop talking about episodic treatment of disease and focus more on prevention and wellness.

Rapid progress is being made. With a tiny chip, researchers can measure entire human genomes, said Atul Butte, director of the Institute of Computational Health Sciences at the University of California, San Francisco.  It’s not only important to measure data, but also to share it with the public. The most remarkable export from the U.S. is open source research data available to all scientists — citizen and traditionally trained.

The president of the Institute of Medicine, Victor Dzau, demonstrated how big data and related advances are playing out on an institutional and global scale. The institute is looking at innovative ideas that they see on a micro level and translating them to work nationally and globally — such as reforming clinical trials using all the data within the medical system.

Milken saved one of the most exciting panelists for last, Patrick Soon-Shiong, chairman and CEO of NantWorks LLC. Traditionally, physicians have been trained to work in silos. For example, a doctor might work exclusively in lung cancer, breast cancer or non-cancer diseases. However, when you look at the proteomic level, you can see that there are similarities across diseases, Soon-Shiong said.

Scientists can now translate every cancer cell down to its proteome sequence (antigen) and seek out an antibody to match that antigen, he said. Then, they can target that specific cell with natural killer cells that make up 5 percent to 10 percent of a person’s white blood cells. Scientists would activate these natural killer cells to attack and eliminate cancer cells.

This isn’t the future; it’s happening now. “We have a Hodgkin’s patient who experienced a full response,” he explained. Soon-Shiong is partnering with Blackberry to bring about this reality. He and Blackberry Executive Chairman and CEO John Chen showcased complex genomic data held, securely, on their Blackberry Passports. Blackberry has been working on ways to better secure health-care data, Chen said.

The future not only requires disruptive technology, but also unity and collaboration  among doctors, scientists and other medical professionals. According to Barker, “TS Eliot said, ‘Hell is where nothing connects.’ The health-care system is close to that hell.”  There is a need for an entity, such as the government and IOM, to fix data interoperability problems. The problem also can be attacked by having more hands in the game – young people, citizen scientists and entrepreneurs.

Soon-Shiong left the audience with an inspiring vision: “I truly believe we are on the verge of the best age in health care. We have a great opportunity to change the paradigm of care. Within a year, my goal is to create patient-empowered care, not just patient-centered care.”