Tech's arsenal in the fight against cancer - Technical.ly Philly

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Jun. 24, 2016 10:33 am

Tech’s arsenal in the fight against cancer

As humanity embarks on a cancer moonshot, some of the needed solutions might be simpler than you think. An event hosted by PACT explored the frontiers of cancer treatment.

Dr. Howard Krein at PACT's event at the Cira Centre.

(Courtesy photo)

When it comes to cancer, it seems like everyone has a story that hits home.

For Dr. Howard Krein, chief medical officer of StartUp Health, the main element in the narrative was the frustration he felt when even all the resources in the world meant nothing.

See, Krein’s brother-in-law, Beau Biden — son of Vice President Joe Biden — began a drawn-out battle against an aggressive type of brain cancer in 2010.

Help was offered from the world’s top physicians, but there was a small problem: There was no quick way to get the result of Beau’s brain scans to those who could help. In an era where an emoji can travel the world in a heartbeat, life-or-death medical reports had to be put in boxes and shipped to where they were needed, due to their complexity.

Out of this frustration, and the sadness of Biden’s tragic 2015 demise, the National Cancer Moonshot Initiative was born, in a bid to provide technology with all the support it needed to stand tough in the face of cancer.

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Krein shared the story last week during PACT’s Healthcare, Technology and the Cancer Moonshot panel discussion, where stakeholders spoke about moving cancer closer to a treatable and chronic ailment, and how tech initiatives in Philly can help humanity get there.

Interviewed by SeventySix Capital’s Wayne Kimmel, Krein opened up before an audience of more than 100 about his professional career, his involvement in the cancer moonshot and his hope for Philly tech startups to help move cancer to the “treatable” column.

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“There’s some great innovation coming from Philly’s universities,” Krein said. “It’s all about making sure that Philadelphia, as one of the oldest hospital cities in the country, adapts to the changes of digital technology. As young entrepreneurs show up at our hospitals with great ideas, we have to embrace them.”

But how can that embrace made easier? We’ve heard before from health IT startups how difficult it is to get their foot in the door with large institutions, the only ones that can provide access to patients, resources and trials.

Breaking past that wall, he said, is what Startup Health is all about. The digital health accelerator, founded in 2011, sets companies up with access to the community, coaching from stakeholders, media promotion and direct access to investors.

Krein shared another thought we’ve heard before: Startup Health evaluates the profile of the founders along with the idea they’re pitching when considering new members to the accelerator, which claims to have the largest portfolio of health companies in the world, featuring startups from 12 countries.

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Krein wasn’t the only one at the event with something to say, so he took the mic to moderate a panel that featured Dr. Chi Van Dang, director for the Abramson Cancer Center at the University of PennsylvaniaDr. Angela Bradbury, executive director of the Abramson Cancer Center’s Telegenetics Program; Dr. Maksim Tsvetovat, founder of Open Health Network; and Alisa Zaita, member of a patient organization called Pheo Paratroopers.

Bradbury came bearing numbers on the interaction of cancer patients and telemedicine, like the fact that 88 percent of cancer patients would be willing to obtain genetic testing results through the web.

The use of other techniques like videoconferencing, telephone and telegenetics, though perhaps not as sexy, are tech initiatives that could be used to simplify the lives of patients and increase efficiency of institutions.

Open Health Network’s Tsvetovat spoke about the growing need for easier access to data management, regulation and processing. “We need help getting medical records that are not in a physical form but in a usable data from a secure location,” Tsvetovat said.

“Facebook knows what you had for breakfast,” he added. “Why can’t we share something important?”

He also highlighted the value patients had found through the Open Health Network platform, which lets patients and doctors create mobile apps for things like trials, patient education, surveys, compliance and more.

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When Alisa Zaita’s 16 year-old daughter was diagnosed with paraganglioma, a very rare type of cancer, she turned to Pheo Paratroopers.

The national organization of paraganglioma and pheochromocytoma patients, which has a worldwide network of patients and doctors, is currently using the Open Health Network to set up an app to gather key data from patients in a survey that may shed more light onto a relatively unknown disease.

The app will compile data through a food diary, a medicine log and a symptom tracker, which will be made accessible to the scientific community. It’s scheduled to be released this fall.

Though a mobile app might not qualify as advanced science to some, according to Penn’s Van Dang — a member of the National Cancer Moonshot Initiative Blue Ribbon Panel — simpler solutions can have profound impact in our view of the disease. Something, he said, as simple as a mobile app for booking healthcare.

“Here’s a problem we often face: if you’re going to a restaurant you can make a reservation simply by going in an app,” Van Deng said. “We don’t have a simple appointment process in the medical system to my knowledge. Why can’t we do that with tech?” (In 2014, we saw local startup SpeSo offer something along those lines.)

“These are very real, on-the-ground problems that need technical solutions,” he said.

As the cancer moonshot presses on, it’s clear that all walks of tech must join forces with medical science if major breakthroughs are to be made. As for everyday citizens, the advice Krein has to offer is much simpler: “Get involved and support legislation for healthcare change.”

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