Growing wealth of data leading to better outcomes for cancer patients

As researchers search for novel ways to treat and better understand cancer, a growing wealth of data is making these efforts more successful than ever before.

“As with any problem, the better we understand it and the more data we get, the more likely that we are going to figure some things out,” said Howard Bailey, director of the University of Wisconsin Carbone Cancer Center.

He spoke as part of a panel at a recent meeting of the Wisconsin Technology Council’s Innovation Network in Madison. Also present were Chorom Pak, co-founder and president of biotech startup Lynx Biosciences, and David Beebe, another co-founder and a professor of biomedical engineering at UW-Madison.

Pak gave an update on the company’s progress in moving toward a marketable form of its MicroC3 device, which can measure the therapeutic response of a patient’s tumor cells alongside non-tumor cells. It acts as a sort of test-run for blood cancer treatments, evaluating their effectiveness without having to use the patient as a guinea pig.

“We’re in our second clinical trial; we’ll be embarking on our next third clinical trial with some really cool partnerships that we’ll hopefully announce soon,” Pak said. “So we’re just chugging along, and hopefully at a certain point we will actually get this into the clinic and be able to begin to identify those right treatment options for those patients.”

Lynx Bio’s test can return results within three days of a standard of care biopsy, and can be used as a companion diagnostic alongside any blood cancer therapy. Early studies have been successful in identifying patients as clinically responsive or unresponsive to a common drug for multiple myeloma, a cancer of the body’s white blood cells.

But before it can be used in the lab, Pak and her team will have to get it into the hands of doctors.

“Standard of care is empirical treatment… they’ve been doing this for decades,” she said. “This is how they’ve always treated their patients; they’re well versed in it, they’re comfortable with it, and one of our hurdles is changing that mindset.”

Because other technologies have promised similarly personalized medicine and “didn’t quite deliver,” Pak says doctors may be hesitant to change their ways and trust in a new method.

As she puts it, Lynx Bio will be “dead” without their buy-in, so incorporating strategies for gaining their trust will be crucial.

“I think instead of evolving with the field, we actually should be able to evolve the field to a place that it should be,” Pak added.

And, she added, it’s not just physicians they have to convince.

“You have your regulatory pathways, with your clinical trials for the FDA, then you have reimbursements with actual payers — commercial vs. CMS — so we have a lot of players that need to fall into place for us,” Pak said.

Beebe has also played a role in founding other high-tech startups: Salus Discovery LLC, which has a microfluidics device measuring inflammatory cells in the blood; and Tasso Inc, which has a simple tool for patients to collect their own blood samples at home.

“You stick it on, stick it in an envelope, and send it in for analysis, which I think is one of the next waves that’s going to happen — this decentralization of testing,” Beebe said.

In recent years, the growing field of cancer immunology has yielded various immunotherapies, treatments boosting the immune system’s response to cancerous growth.

“Clearly, it’s not just hype,” Bailey said, calling immunology a “breakthrough.”

Another strategy for better understanding cancer, genomics, is allowing scientists to delve into the genetic makeup of certain cancers, improving their odds of finding ways to fight them.

Bailey says genomics represents a breakthrough “not because of genomics itself,” but because improvements in understanding coming from electronic health records and other testing results will usually lead to better treatments down the road.

“Really, electronic health records is going to provide, for the first time I think, where we will have literally the outcomes of millions of people, and there’s much we’ll learn from that,” he said.

–By Alex Moe