New Cancer Treatments Lie Hidden Under Mountains of Paperwork

Dr. Nikhil Wagle thought he had an excellent thought to advance analysis and affected person care.

Dr. Wagle, an oncologist on the Dana Farber Cancer Institute in Boston, and his colleagues would construct an enormous database that linked most cancers sufferers’ medical data, therapies and outcomes with their genetic backgrounds and the genetics of their tumors.

The database would additionally embrace sufferers’ personal experiences. How ailing did they really feel with the therapies? What was their high quality of life? The database would discover patterns that will inform medical doctors what remedy was greatest for every affected person and what sufferers would possibly anticipate.

The holdup, he thought, can be discovering sufferers. Instead, the actual obstacle turned out to be gathering their medical data.

In the United States, there isn’t a single format utilized by all suppliers, and hospitals haven’t any incentive to make it simple to switch data from one place to a different. The medical data mess is hobbling analysis and impeding makes an attempt to enhance affected person care.

“Data are trapped,” stated Dr. Ned Sharpless, director of the National Cancer Institute. “This is a huge problem. It is phenomenally important.”

The most cancers institute has invested thousands and thousands of into figuring out the genetic sequences of sufferers’ tumors, and researchers have discovered hundreds of genes that appear to drive tumor progress.

But till sufferers’ medical data are linked to the genetic knowledge, life-or-death questions can’t be answered.

“What drug did they get? Did they respond? Did they survive? Were they cured?” Dr. Sharpless requested.

The federal authorities has mandated uniform requirements for digital well being data. “At this point, they are not to a level that helps with the detailed clinical data that we need for the scientific questions we want to ask,” Dr. Wagle stated.

A number of personal firms are attempting to sort out the issue. Flatiron Health, simply purchased by Roche, has obtained about 2.2 million data of most cancers sufferers from medical facilities and made them out there for analysis after stripping them of identifiable data.

But Flatiron should make use of 900 nurses and licensed tumor registrars, individuals with grasp’s levels in coding knowledge, to place all of it right into a usable kind.

“About 50 percent, if not more, of the critical details we need for research are trapped in unstructured documents,” stated Dr. Amy Abernethy, the corporate’s chief medical officer.

“They are in PDFs. Maybe a doctor put in a note by hand, maybe a doctor typed it. That note became a narrative. It is not something that can easily be put into a spreadsheet.”

Dr. Sharpless worries that the information acquired by firms like Flatiron won’t be available to researchers. But if the businesses handle to resolve the medical data downside cheaply, he stated, “we’d like to work with them to figure out how to liberate the data.”

Dr. Wagle is making knowledge from medical data and sufferers’ experiences public as he will get them. After 2 1/2 years, although, he’s disenchanted by how little there may be to share.

The affected person who impressed his undertaking had a deadly kind of thyroid most cancers. She was anticipated to die in just a few months. In desperation, medical doctors gave her a drug that by all accounts mustn’t have helped.

To everybody’s shock, her tumors shrank to virtually nothing, and he or she survived. She was an “extraordinary responder.”

Why? It turned out that her tumor had an uncommon mutation that made it susceptible to the drug.

And that obtained Dr. Wagle considering. What if researchers had a database that will enable them to seek out these fortunate sufferers, look at their tumors, and uncover genetic mutations that predict which medicine will work?

And what about those that weren’t helped by normal therapies? Could they be recognized and spared therapies that won’t work?

What researchers wanted was an enormous database that collected scientific and genetic knowledge, together with sufferers’ descriptions of their experiences. Those narratives are essential, Dr. Wagle stated, however they’re absent from the industrial databases like Flatiron’s. Those comprise nameless affected person knowledge, making it not possible to ask the sufferers themselves how they fared.

Dr. Wagle determined to construct a database, beginning with metastatic breast most cancers, his specialty. There are about 155,000 metastatic breast most cancers sufferers within the United States. He would use social media, on-line boards and advocacy teams to achieve out to sufferers for his or her data.

The Metastatic Breast Cancer Project started in October 2015. Patients have been keen to affix, and advocacy teams enthusiastically signed on. So far, the undertaking contains four,400 ladies.

Determining the genetic sequences of their tumors and of their wholesome cells was easy — “the easy part,” Dr. Wagle stated.

Gathering their medical data was one other story. The knowledge exist in all types of codecs, and essential data could also be lacking altogether.

Simply getting the data delivered, in no matter format, has been a nightmare. Records often arrive as faxes or through snail mail.

“Even though the patients are saying, ‘I have consented for you to obtain my medical records,’ there is no good way to get them,” Dr. Wagle stated.

He employed half a dozen individuals to work full-time on the undertaking, and corralled medical doctors and different specialists to assist part-time. It can take hours to undergo a single medical document.

Mary McGillicuddy, who works full-time on the undertaking, defined the system. When sufferers enroll, they inform the investigators the place they have been handled, the place that they had biopsies, the place that they had scans, and the place that they had medical procedures.

They give Ms. McGillicuddy and her colleagues permission to request their data. Ms. McGillicuddy faxes requests for data to every medical establishment that handled a affected person, or recognized or sequenced her most cancers.

Startlingly, faxing “is the standard,” Ms. McGillicuddy stated, for medical data requests.

The course of may be irritating. Fax numbers may be out of date. Some medical facilities won’t settle for digital affected person signatures on the permission types.

Sometimes, the medical facilities simply ignore the request — and the second request. In the tip, Ms. McGillicuddy stated, the undertaking will get fewer than half the data it requests.

Then comes the laborious activity of extracting medical data from the data and coming into it into the database. A faxed medical document could also be 100 or 200 pages lengthy.

So far, the breast most cancers undertaking has obtained 450 data for 375 sufferers. (Each affected person tends to have multiple document, as a result of the ladies sometimes are seen at multiple medical heart.)

“Patients are incredibly engaged and excited,” Dr. Wagle stated. But for the data downside, “right now there isn’t a good solution.”


An earlier model of this story incorrectly described Dr. Amy Abernethy’s position at Flatiron Health. She is its chief medical officer, not its founder. In addition, the article misstated the quantity of medical data obtained by the corporate. The determine is 2.2 million, not 1 million.

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