Imagine visiting the doctor’s office for a check-up and watching as the measurements from your blood pressure and heart rate appear instantaneously on a screen at the doctor’s desk.
When the doctor comes in, instead of manually comparing your vitals with a chart pasted inside her notebook, she looks to the screen, where the computer has done the work for her, instantly measuring your health data against that of thousands of other patients.
Using a sample of your blood, the doctor could run a similar comparison with your genes, enabling her to tell you in a few minutes if you’re at risk of developing specific conditions like hair loss, or even potentially fatal diseases like cystic fibrosis.
This is how the richest doctor in the world, Patrick Soon-Shiong, envisions the future of medicine. And the first thing he wants to change is the way we screen for, diagnose, and treat cancer.
His revolutionary data-sharing system for cancer would, in theory, enable doctors and scientists to share complex information about a patient’s DNA, allowing them to develop precise, individually-tailored treatments that could beat the disease. The effort was recently featured in a 60 Minutes special called “Disrupting Cancer.”
Before he was the world’s wealthiest doctor, Soon-Shiong was brainstorming ways to transplant seaweed-covered pig cells into people with diabetes.
He’s an adventurous sort.
After his experiments with potential cures for diabetes turned out to be too risky to pursue further, Soon-Shiong turned to cancer. In 1991, he patented the drug Abraxane, a top-selling treatment that, despite being only a slight variation on the existing cancer drug Taxol, has made him the majority of his nearly $US13.3 billion
in net worth.
Abraxane is an injectible form of the tree-bark-derived Taxol, packaged in a protein coat that makes it more efficient at targeting cancer cells. It’s widely used to treat breast and lung cancers, and is now being recommended in patients with pancreatic cancer thanks to a recent favourable clinical trial.
Soon-Shiong isn’t just a doctor. He’s also a businessman. And he’s announced that he will likely release an initial public offering, under the company name NantHealth, in early 2015. (In September, Forbes valued NantHealth at $US7.7 billion.)
So far, much of the project remains in the idea phase, and some healthcare experts say they still aren’t sure just what the system will actually look like.
But the first week of December, Soon-Shiong rolled out the first part of the initiative, a mobile browser that would let doctors use a smartphone to look at their patients’ genomes.
This could have implications not just for cancer patients, but for everyone else too. While most diseases come from a combination of genetic and environmental factors, our genes make us who we are, and scientists have already identified which ones are involved in specific health problems.
The Soon-Shiong Master Plan To Beat Cancer
The browser is, in a sense, a miniature version of Soon-Shiong’s master plan: an integrated healthcare system that Forbes reporter Matthew Herper describes as “the closest thing that Earth has ever had to Star Trek’s fabled tricorder.”
No, doctors won’t be diagnosing you in seconds by running a handheld device all over your body. But, if Soon-Shiong’s initiative goes as planned, they could be using a smartphone — and a few other devices — to find out which particular genes are causing problems and why. Instead of waiting days for a diagnosis, you could get one in minutes. Using genetic analysis for cancer treatment isn’t Soon-Shiong’s idea, but scaling it to the level he envisions is.
Soon-Shiong has said he thinks our biggest challenge when it comes to cancer is that we lack the capacity to fully understand it. If we don’t understand it, we can’t beat it. With enough digital bandwidth, however, Soon-Shiong thinks there’s hope.
Here’s how Soon-Shiong envisions a future cancer patient’s experience: It starts out like any other, with a trip to an office. Then, instead of being manually entered into log books or computers, all of the patient’s information — from her heartrate to her blood pressure — will be automatically fed into a central computer network.
And tumour biopsies, which normally take months to process, will be ready in a day; the doctor will run the patient’s blood and DNA through a nationwide database filled with thousands of other patients’ vital information (all encrypted and secure). Using those results, the doctor recommends a treatment regimen tailored to the unique genetic makeup of the patient’s tumour.
Doctors will be able to monitor their patients long after they leave the hospital; in a recent demo, Soon-Shiong walked potential investors through a darkened room, covered in computer screens, that would function as a command center from which a half-dozen doctors could check-in on hundreds of patients remotely. One example of these remote check-ins is GlowCap, which Soon-Shiong recently purchased. GlowCap makes an $US80 pill bottle that glows when patients need to take their medication and alerts doctors when they open the lid.
So a doctor won’t just be able to tell a patient to take his medicine — she’ll know if he did.
Testing The Waters
Soon-Shiong is launching his first pilot program of the initiative in January at Providence Health and Services, the healthcare network that recently acquired a Los Angeles hospital to which Soon-Shiong gave $US85 million. Providence plans to link NantHealth’s software and its genetic tests, offering them to each of the more than 25,000 cancer patients they see each year.
During the pilot, Providence will likely be outfitted like Soon-Shiong’s clinic of the future, with smart blood pressure and heartrate monitors, speedy genetic testing systems, and remote patient monitoring systems.
Will the system succeed in creating better treatments for cancer, and will it help us eventually beat a disease that claims nearly 600,000 American lives each year? While we probably won’t have the answer to that question for years, we will be able to get a glimpse of how the program is working in the next few months.
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