Can Software Developers Cure Cancer?

By | 2017-03-20T13:12:41+00:00 March 17, 2017|Healthcare Trends, Innovation, Oncology, Technology, Viewpoints|

95 years.

That’s how long it would take to read the printed version of your DNA. Spread out across 130 book volumes without a single sentence, that includes all the 3 billion base pairs of the human genome. It seems that we, as mere humans, might just need some help to unlock its secrets.

Unlocking the Secrets of the Human Genome

Genome sequencing and analysis is so complex that it requires enormous computing power. To unlock its secrets, we need some serious software.

Right now, software developers are building massive artificial intelligence learning systems to mine the human genome data. If we’re lucky, they are going to unlock the next generation of healthcare.

The Problem with Cancer

40% of Americans will face cancer during their lifetimes, with half dying from it
—American Cancer Society

We have made tremendous advances in the treatment of cancer. However, too many patients do not receive the treatment they need in time. In most cases, early detection is the key to improved patient outcomes.

Our current approach to biopsies is one of the leading challenges, requiring the surgical extraction of tumor tissue that delays a diagnosis. Fortunately, new advances are allowing for liquid biopsies, where we can detect tumor types through the blood using genomic sequencing.

But there’s a lot of data in the genome. In fact, if the 1.7 million Americans who will get cancer in 2016 were to have their healthy and tumor cells sequenced, it would yield one exabyte (1018) of raw data (the equivalent of 31,250,000 iPhones).

So now that we have an arsenal of cancer treatments and a fast way to sequence it, we need a system that can accurately make that early diagnosis. And that’s where Freenome comes in.

Introducing Freenome

Freenome is creating a genomic thermometer of who you are as you grow, live, and age. Their platform allows you to track the health of your genomes so you can make the best decisions for your health. Your Freenome helps you design your “healthy” baseline and then serves as a warning system for “unhealthy” conditions, such as cancer, so you can get the care that you need, when you need it.

The Freenome team—co-founders Gabriel Otte, Charlie Roberts, and Riley Ennis—has deep expertise in both the biology and the computer science involved, allowing them to develop software technology that can leverage liquid biopsies and genomics to develop a test that can detect cancer early.

The “cure to cancer isn’t going to look like another drug,” says longtime Stanford Professor Vijay Pande. “It will be our ability to predict that someone has cancer far before traditional means, then giving [those diagnosed with the disease] existing drugs. At least 80 percent or more of cancers could be treated successfully if only they were caught ahead of time.”

Professor Pande leads the Andreessen Horowitz’s $200 million Bio Fund. The fund has recently invested $5.5 million into Freenome’s five-person team. According to Pande, Freenome has come the closest to combining on the right understanding of both computer science and biology to detect the mutations that make it possible to diagnose particular cancers—and determine the best course of treatment for them based on their composition.

While the company has validated its tests with hundreds of samples, it still needs to prove itself on tens of thousands of samples before it is verified a definite success. But the funding shows a strong confidence in the huge potential of their approach.

The Credit for the Cure

Given the movements in the industry and the increase in funding, I think that it is likely that an algorithm will discover the key to curing cancer. When that happens, who gets the credit? The medical researcher or the software engineer? When you think about the millions of lives that could saved, I think we’re all just happy it’s here.

Interested in learning more about how liquid biopsies and genome sequencing will affect oncology? I would love to discuss; please reach out to contact me.

About the Author:

Ben Putman
SVP, General Manager—Biotech

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