Big Data and Precision Medicine Trending at CHI Tri-Con in SF

Moscone North Hall, Feb. 17, 2015. After walking the halls in the exhibit area at the recent annual CHI Tri-Con event in San Francisco, I discovered that a theme came together after I passed by various booths.

For one thing, the words “precision medicine” seemed to be resonating among those firms that were exhibiting and I asked some of them, “Is that the same thing as “personalized medicine” or “individualized medicine?”” I noted to that person that President Obama had recently made some kind of a speech that was promoting the idea of precision medicine so maybe the time has come for precision medicine to take the spotlight.

In any event I also found that there are other themes there such as big data. It is being used in a number of different biomedical research areas. I stopped by the Illumina booth spoke with the lady there whose name was Kathleen. She said that she had just joined the company about two months ago from Roche where she was involved in the clinical area. She said that her firm is moving into the data management side of their business with a focus on clinical diagnostics and take advantage of the fact that a lot of NexGen sequencing is now being used for clinical types of applications and will be generating lots and lots of data.  So big date is the theme here as well. They’re hoping to sell their systems into the clinic and hospital type settings so that they develop some very useful software systems to make sense of all that data. Data analytics is going to be a big deal.

I walked around and came across another booth that was also telling the story of powerful computer power and big data and that was the guy at Cray Computer that is famous for supercomputers in the past, but today they are using many many computers together as a cluster, a Hadoop and have another one they called SPARK. I’ll have to check out what “Spark” means. It seems to me that quite a lot is happening in the software.

CHI had other usual events that they have at the Exhibit Hall such as a raffle in which an attendee might win some kind of electronic gadget. This part of the event also featured a discussion tables. There were 40 tables that could handle as many as 8 to 10 people.  I noticed that just about every table was filled up in the hall and some of the tables had probably 10 to 15 people there, so they must have had some very popular topics to discuss. Traditionally, this part of the exhibit area has been very popular in past meetings that I’ve attended.

Simple Cancer Biomarkers are Inadequate to Enable Personalized Medicine

It seems that researchers are finding that using single cancer biomarkers to develop companion diagnostics (CDx’s) to be used with future targeted therapeutics is very challenging. An article in the November 15 issue of Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology News, called Traversing the Cancer Biomarker Labyrinth, by Kathy Liszewski, is a very interesting read.

Apparently progress in this field has slowed in finding clinically useful biomarkers for diagnostics and making other tests that guide doctors for disease prognosis and prediction. Researchers are using a variety of reductionist technical approaches that range from analysis of certain glycans, key microRNAs, and epigenetic changes, to big data analysis of massive data stores of genomic data to tease out more clues to what is going on in cancers.

Scientists seek to develop early detection blood tests that can detect cancers of interest.  Such a blood test could be considered a ‘liquid biopsy’ and might include a panel of a dozen or more miRNAs that represent a biomarker signature.  An oncologist might one day be enabled to quickly screen certain patients with a blood test that would help them diagnose, stage or predict the potential outcome of a cancer.

Acute Need for Early Warning Dx for “Silent Killer” Cancers

There is a need for early warning diagnostics to detect “silent killer” cancers such as pancreatic, liver, GI and lung cancers. Most of these cancers are discovered at the late stage when acute symptoms appear and no cure is possible.  Maybe an annual simple screening test could be developed that could accurately detect a molecular signature of these cancers.

It is a very sad situation indeed to see patients die just after two, four or six weeks post-diagnosis.  Just this past weekend, our co-writer and industry analyst for this blog and our market research firm succumbed to an aggressive cancer of unknown primary origin that spread to the liver.  She died in less than five weeks from diagnosis.  The FDG- PET CT scan showed active cancers in the liver, pancreas, uterus and breast. Ultimately the oncologist concluded that the cancer likely came from the pancreas. May she rest in peace.

Close relatives interested in getting a PET scan for themselves were advised that the Radiology Dept. would only offer a PET scan after a patient was already diagnosed to have cancer.  Whereas a PET scan is good at detecting cancer, it is a very expensive resource that hospitals choose to limit access to.

What is needed is an annual pre-symptomatic, accurate, low-cost multiple-molecular-marker, blood test that can screen for cancer at the earliest point – before a tumor is formed. The screening test would likely use a panel of biomarkers associated with the “silent cancers.”

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