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Federal healthcare leaders: Let technology loose in precision medicine battle against cancer

In talking to researchers at pharmaceutical companies and universities, you’ll often hear them describe cancer treatment as the prototype for precision medicine because there are so many variations of the illness.

Looked at another way, cancer cases offer up a lot of medical data.

So it’s no surprise that cancer will be among the top public enemies as part of President Obama’s push for greater innovation in precision medicine — and technology is going to help lead the fight. (See the clip below to hear Obama talk about his initiative.)

Precision medicine involves examining a large number of patients — such as cancer sufferers — to look for common genetic characteristics and lifestyle habits that could pinpoint more effective treatments. This approach contrasts with the common “one-size-fits-all” method to combat a disease among various patients.

Interest in precision medicine has risen in recent years because of advances in technology, wrote Francis S. Collins, M.D., Ph.D., director of the U.S. National Institutes of Health, and Harold Varmus, M.D., director of the U.S. National Cancer Institute. Collins and Varmus penned a column about personalized medicine in the Feb. 26 issue of The New England Journal of Medicine.

Tech developments that aid precision medicine research include the following, as noted by Collins and Varmus:

  • Large-scale biologic databases, such as human genome sequences that decode DNA secrets
  • New methods for characterizing patients, such genomics and mobile health
  • Computational tools for analyzing data

Obama’s plan calls for a group of at least 1 million Americans to volunteer in cancer research through voluntary biological specimen examination and genome sequencing. EHRs will play a prominent role in this piece of precision medicine: Researchers will have access to this new cancer data through electronically-linked patient records.

Also, researchers will monitor how mHealth devices can assist physicians in developing better ways for patients to prevent and manage cancer threats on their own, Collins and Varmus wrote.

Other countries, such as those in the United Kingdom, are also pursuing precision medicine advances to battle cancer using big data.

It remains to be seen whether data can help the healthcare community turn the corner to defeat cancer. But if that scenario becomes reality, it is so interesting to think health IT will take a revered place in the history of medical breakthroughs.

Scott Wallask is news director at SearchHealthIT. Follow him on Twitter @Scott_HighTech.