This blog is a departure from my usual prostate cancer topics because it is dedicated to the entire world of cancer. And yet, it implicitly includes prostate cancer, because what I want to share is an idea that could be the key to curing ALL cancers!
I found a viewpoint article that was published by the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) in May 2022. Its title is what got my attention: “Maximizing Cancer Data—The Future of Cancer is Now.”[i] Its author, Jill Barnholtz-Sloan, PhD, is making it her mission to advance healthcare by optimizing data and analytics. She currently works at the National Cancer Institute/Division of Cancer Epidemiology & Genetics where she is the Associate Director for Informatics and Data Science, in the Center for Biomedical Informatics & Information Technology.
These are impressive credentials, but what’s even more noteworthy is her conviction that a single, publicly available system for accessing the enormous and ever-growing information about all cancers at the cellular level can unlock their secrets. In turn, researchers, clinicians, and patients can take collective advantage of these secrets to develop cancer cures.
You may not have heard about a government-based initiative called the Cancer Moonshot. Established in 2016, it had three goals: to accelerate scientific discovery in cancer, foster greater collaboration, and improve the sharing of data. While scientific discovery is galloping right along, Dr. Barnholtz-Sloan points out that much of it exists in separate “silos” where it remains unshared on a national—let alone global— level. Individual academic centers and private laboratories that fail to contribute their findings to a larger, openly accessible pool will selfishly retard progress in understanding cancer.
Since cancer is heterogeneous (that is, it’s not a single disease, but rather a multiplicity of diseases within which there are multiple cell lines), it’s challenging to develop curative treatments that can work across various cancers. Let’s take prostate cancer (PCa) as an example. Today, we have the capability to diagnose a patient down to the molecular level. Let’s say there are two patients, James and Ted, both with early stage PCa—but their molecular factors differ. If both men have successful prostatectomies, presumably both will be cured. However, suppose a major pharmaceutical company creates a proprietary, effective oral or injectable immunotherapy that gains FDA approval for patients with James’ type of PCa, is useless for Ted? James gets to pop a pill or get a shot, while Ted undergoes surgery, wears a catheter for a week, needs pads for 6 more weeks of urinary dripping, and does not regain sexual function for 10 months. Such a scenario is not far-fetched. However, if the pharma company makes its cellular research available, such a cooperative measure increases the likelihood that similar drugs could be developed for other cell lines.
In fact, there are already existing data pools by which public and private researchers can share their scientific findings. For example, The Cancer Genome Atlas (TCGA) enables researchers to generate collective brilliance through the power of curiosity, brainstorming and new discoveries. Then there’s The Human Tumor Atlas Network. As Dr. Barnholtz-Sloan writes, it is “…taking what was learned from TCGA at the bulk level and advancing our knowledge at single-cell resolution and is deepening our understanding of the biological mechanisms that cause a normal cell to progress to cancer.” These and other such pools are the foundation for what she calls a national cancer data ecosystem.
I foresee that as we incorporate Artificial Intelligence tools into data analysis, it will propel our knowledge of cancer exponentially, allowing more rapid development of curative treatments that can encompass the heterogeneity of cancers. As Dr. Barnholtz-Sloan rightly points out, “Sharing knowledge enriches both those who share and those who receive. Every citizen has the right to benefit from the wealth of data being generated in cancer research.” However, technology alone cannot bring these benefits into reality. It requires the will and commitment to generously contribute data to appropriate registries. It is my hope that all researchers will hop on board with the lesson we learned in childhood: share and share alike.
NOTE: This content is solely for purposes of information and does not substitute for diagnostic or medical advice. Talk to your doctor if you are experiencing pelvic pain, or have any other health concerns or questions of a personal medical nature.
[i] Barnholtz-Sloan JS. Maximizing Cancer Data-The Future of Cancer Is Now. JAMA Oncol. 2022 May 26. doi: 10.1001/jamaoncol.2022.1572.