Personalized medicine? Precisely

April 30, 2015

photo from precision medicine panel“We’re here today at a panel that will change the world for every human being,” Michael Milken said as he introduced a discussion on accelerating precision medicine treatments from potential to reality.

Precision medicine—a revolutionary approach that draws on genomics, advanced devices and computer science to enable physicians to diagnose and design unique treatments for individual patients—is considered by many to be the future of medicine. As FasterCures Executive Director Margaret Anderson put it, “To ignore this revolution would be to ignore humanity.”

Pradeep Khosla of the University of California, San Diego, and Brian Druker of Oregon Health and Science University Knight Cancer Institute kicked off the discussion by making the important point that the road to precision medicine goes through big data, which is essentially large aggregates of patient information.

The panel agreed that the success of personalized medicine requires three elements:

  • partnerships with patients to acquire data
  • collaborative collisions around the data
  • significant investments from the private sector and the federal government

Sam Hawgood of the University of California, San Francisco, said that to become true partners with patients, “we have to build a very different kind of relationship with them, one that instills a tremendous level of trust.” He emphasized that particularly at a time when data breaches are becoming more common, it is important that patients feel comfortable providing access to their data.

Milken followed with “What we are learning from social media is that people are more willing to share more data than we think. The trust element is already there.… Most people are willing to turn over their data if they know that it will help themselves or others.”

In addition to partnering with patients, Elizabeth Nabel of Brigham and Women’s Health Care stressed the importance of strengthening partnerships across the medical research enterprise, as well as drawing in new stakeholders from the private sector. Nabel explained that the enterprise includes academic centers, the federal government and the private sector. She stressed that we all have skin in the game because health affects us individually and as a society. A concerted investment in data collection, analytics and other aspects of precision medicine will accelerate the science faster, bringing us that much closer to cure and eradication of some of the cruelest diseases.

“We need to develop strategic partnerships between public and private sectors, and we really need the private sector to come in and co-invest,” Nabel said. Forward-thinking institutions are coming up with innovative ways to partner with the private sector to make the process easier.

Nabel and Druker agreed that big data brings people together and, as Nabel put it, ignites “collisions of collaboration” between previously disparate experts to accelerate discovery. Druker added, “As a frontline physician, you ask yourself, ‘I’ve got this patient with these particular features, how does my patient compare to other patients outside of my walls?’” We now have a path forward to answer these types of questions, but to get there we must figure out how to effectively operationalize the sharing of data across institutions.

“As we’ve grown into collecting this data, we have not done it together, it is not yet standardized, so interoperability is an issue,” Hawgood remarked. Working together across the enterprise to rectify this problem is essential to get to a place where precision medicine becomes the standard of care.

Milken wrapped up the discussion by emphasizing that “creating these data sets will attract the best and brightest minds” from a wide variety of disciplines. This will open up a powerful opportunity to put fresh eyes on the data and ask questions from brand-new perspectives, ultimately crowdsourcing the discovery of treatments and cures.