Moonshot: Accelerating the Pace of Cancer Research
Every day, thousands of men and women across the nation receive a diagnosis that will change their life and the lives of their family members and loved ones. Each one of us has been affected by cancer. Some are patients or survivors; others are relatives, co-workers, neighbors, and friends. We are all invested in finding cures, because as Vice President Joe Biden said, for us, the fight is personal.
Today, our team at the Laura and John Arnold Foundation (LJAF) is pleased to join the vice president and all those who are working to save lives by accelerating the development of breakthrough treatments. At this morning’s White House summit, LJAF announced three grants that will help to support the Cancer Moonshot initiative.
The first grant will fund a competition that is designed to improve early detection of breast cancer. Launched today, the Digital Mammography DREAM Challenge will award up to $1.2 million to data scientists, researchers, and coding experts who develop predictive algorithms that strengthen the accuracy of digital mammography. After years of promoting frequent mammograms, the American Cancer Society recently issued new guidelines that recommend women undergo fewer screenings in part because of the high percentage of mammograms that result in unnecessary medical procedures. Our goal is to use anonymous mammography data to identify predictive algorithms that will help to reduce human error, limit false positives that can lead to unwarranted treatment and additional medical costs, and ultimately, improve outcomes for people with breast cancer.
The Digital Mammography Challenge, which will be conducted by Sage Bionetworks and DREAM Challenges, is the first in a series of competitions held as part of the Coding for Cancer initiative. The concept for these coding challenges was sparked by a story I read in 2010 about a study that showed how annual CT scans reduced smokers’ risk of dying from lung cancer by 20 percent. The researchers also found, however, that there was a high false-positive rate associated with CT scans. It prompted me and others to think about ways to improve the accuracy of cancer screenings by using machine learning and algorithms to help radiologists determine which patients should receive biopsies.
LJAF was the initial funder of Coding for Cancer. I joined the Foundation a year ago and am proud that we are furthering our investment in the project. Our board of directors has provisionally approved funding to expand the initiative. The second grant that we announced today will allow Harvard Medical School and Harvard Business School to identify, design, and execute coding competitions focused on addressing other technological challenges in cancer research through the use of privacy-protected data.
Finally, we announced funding for an effort that aims to increase the number of patients who participate in clinical trials for cancer and Alzheimer’s disease. The grant will fund a collaboration involving the Global Alzheimer’s Platform, Medecision, PwC, and Amida Technology Solutions to develop software that will store patient data from hundreds of registries in a secure database, allowing researchers and hospitals to search directly for prospective participants who meet research trial criteria. The platform is intended to lower costs and accelerate participant recruitment in order to help researchers develop new treatments and to increase patient access to those medicines and therapies.
In addition to these grants, we have provided funding to the Reproducibility Project: Cancer Biology to support its efforts to independently validate landmark cancer studies, as we believe that systematic validation could be crucial to developing future cancer drugs. That project was launched by Science Exchange and the Center for Open Science in response to revelations from the pharmaceutical industry that more than 70 percent of public cancer research cannot be reproduced, stifling the development of effective new therapies. We are also pleased to support the Harvard HealthCare Markets and Regulation Lab, including its research study that is examining whether or not physicians and oncology patients make decisions about which type of treatments to pursue based on how much the various treatment options will cost both the patient and his or her insurance company.
With these initiatives, and in collaboration with others who are working to cure cancer, we hope to make revolutionary advances in research and improve the lives of all those who are fighting the disease.
Mike Stebbins is vice president of science and technology at the Laura and John Arnold Foundation.