With Cancer, Don’t Ask the Experts

I was recently provided a video link to a December 2013 TEDx conference presentation entitled, “Big Data Meets Cancer” by Neil Hunt, product manager for Netflix. Mr. Hunt’s background has nothing to do with cancer or cancer research. His expertise is in technology, product development, leadership and strategy and has personally shepherded Netflix to its current market dominance. With his background and lack of expertise in cancer, he is an ideal person to examine cancer research from a fresh perspective.

The Long Tail of CancerMr. Hunt begins with a (admittedly) simplistic look at cancer research today. Because he is a data guy, naïve to all of the reasons why cancer cannot be cured, he can look anew at how it might be cured. Using a graphic, he defines cancer as “a long-tail disease” made up of outliers. He points out that most 20th century medical successes have been in the common diseases that fall close to the thick end of the curve. As one moves to the less common illnesses data becomes more scant. Echoing a new conceptual thinking, he points out that cancer is not a single disease but many, possibly thousands.  His concept is to accumulate all of the individual patient data to allow investigators to explore patterns and trends: a bottom up model of cancer biology. Many of his points bear consideration.

For those of you who have read these blogs, you know that I am an adherent to the concept of personalized cancer care. I have articulated repeatedly that cancer patients must be treated as individuals. Each tumor must be profiled using available platforms so that time and resources will not be wasted. We have used the same term “N-of-1” (a clinical trial for one patient) that Mr. Hunt uses in his discussion. He provides two anecdotes regarding patients who benefitted dramatically from unexpected treatment choices. His rallying cry is that contemporary clinical trials are failing. Again, this is an issue that I have addressed many times. He then describes broad-brush clinical protocols as the “tyranny of the average.”

The remainder of the discussion focuses upon possible solutions. Among the obvious hurdles:
1.    Cancer centers are hesitant to share data.
2.    The publication process is slow.
3.    Few are willing to publish negative trials.

To counter these challenges, he points out that small organizations are more incentivized to share and that successes in long-tail diseases can resurrect failed drugs, thereby repaying the costs. Several points were particularly resonant as he pointed out that early adopters face outsized resistance but their perseverance against adversity ultimately evolves the field. He sees this as a win-win-win scenario with patients receiving better care, physicians witnessing better outcomes, and pharmaceutical companies gaining more rapid approval of drugs.

As I watched, it occurred to me that Mr. Hunt was articulating many points that we have raised for over the last decade. As an outsider, he can see, only too clearly, the shortcomings of current methods. His clear perceptions reflect the luxury of distance from the field he is describing. Mr. Hunt’s grasp of cancer research is direct and open-minded. Many problems need fresh eyes. Indeed as we confront problems as complex as cancer it may be best not to ask the experts.