Can Big Data cure cancer?

8/2/14
 
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from FORTUNE Magazine,
7/24/14:

A tale of two twenty-something computer whizzes, a mountain of money from Google, and one of the oldest, most vexing problems of all time.

ZACH WEINBERG (LEFT) AND NAT TURNER, IN FLATIRON HEALTH

Nat Turner and Zach Weinberg founded their company, two years ago, Flatiron Health, is going after a rather audacious goal: shaking up the health care world. And not just any health care problem at that. Turner and Weinberg hope to collect and analyze mountains of clinical data to make inroads into one of medicine’s most complex, research-dependent, and difficult fields: cancer care. Never mind that the pair, who studied economics and entrepreneurship at the Wharton School, didn’t have time for as much as a biology class.

Google has opened its checkbook again for Turner and Weinberg, investing more than $100 million in Flat- iron via Google Ventures, its venture capital unit. (In all, Flatiron has raised $138 million.) And it’s not just Google that the two young ad-tech guys have impressed. Amy Abernethy, a professor of medicine at Duke and a prominent oncologist, acknowledges that what Flatiron hopes to achieve is exceedingly difficult.

Such endorsements (and Googlebucks) aside, the sheer hubris of the proposition—that a pair of baby-faced techies can move the needle on cancer care much beyond what armies of research scientists and highly trained physicians have been able to achieve so far—is remarkable. Turner, who is Flatiron’s CEO, is both unassuming and undaunted. “We are building a tech company that happens to be in the cancer space,” he says.

Flatiron’s thesis is the following: Currently only a small fraction of the cancer patient treatment data is being collected systematically. That collection largely takes place in randomized clinical trials, which cover about 4% of adult cancer patients (though estimates vary). By organizing and standardizing much of the information for the remaining 96% or so and then offering that data back to physicians, Flatiron thinks it can help doctors come up with better treatment options.

In theory, doctors would be able to see what therapies worked best with most patients in similar circumstances, for example, or they’d be able to evaluate their own outcomes with, say, breast-cancer treatment against those of other specialists across the nation and correct any deficiencies quickly.

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