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Gary Gilliland at GeekWire Summit
Gary Gilliland, president of Seattle’s Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, fields questions during the GeekWire Summit with moderators Clare McGrane and Alan Boyle. (Photo by Dan DeLong for GeekWire)

The fight against cancer isn’t just about drugs and genetics. It’s also about wearable devices, health-savvy chatbots, machine learning and one of the biggest challenges that cloud computing will ever face.

Gary Gilliland, president and director of Seattle’s Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, laid out a roadmap for the challenges ahead — and the commercial opportunities — today during a fireside chat at the 2017 GeekWire Summit.

“We’re not a venture firm,” Gilliland told a packed house at the Seattle Sheraton Hotel. “We don’t intend to be. It actually doesn’t support our mission the way we think about it. But boy, do we need partners.”

One of the reasons for that has to do with the masses of genomic data that need to be collected in order to develop the personalized therapies of the future.

Cancer researchers are coming up with increasingly sophisticated ways to boost a patient’s own immune system to fight disease more effectively. Fred Hutch specializes in one of the most promising approaches, in which immune cells are reprogrammed to zero in on the genetic fingerprints of specific cancer cells.

Identifying those fingerprints takes a huge amount of computational horsepower, however. Gilliland said estimates suggest that each patient would generate a terabyte worth of genetic data.

“It was explained to me that, over a population the size of the United States, that would take more cloud capacity than all technology companies combined, including Google, Facebook and Microsoft,” he said.

What’s more, the data analysis would have to filter out false positives that could alarm patients unnecessarily.

It’ll take the best of cloud computing and machine learning to develop digital tools for personalized cancer treatment. Gilliland said Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella and Amazon Web Services executive Mike Clayville are on Fred Hutch’s board specifically to guide the digital campaign against cancer.

“Seattle is ‘Cloud City,'” Gilliland said. “We’ve got Amazon, Microsoft and many other tech companies represented, right here in town.”

He also hailed the region’s prominence in research related to artificial intelligence, machine learning and natural language processing.

“Seattle is the place where it’s going to happen. … Our state now is known for airplanes. We’re known for coffee. We’re known for e-commerce. We’re known for software,” Gilliland said. “Let’s be the state that’s known for working together as the epicenter for developing cures for cancer by integrating the capabilities in our city and our state.”

Two years ago, Gilliland told a life sciences conference in Seattle that it was plausible to see treatments for most if not all human cancers by the year 2025. Today, he said he’s standing firm on that prediction.

“I’m not going back on that one bit. … It’s true that I’ve gotten some push around us from various sectors, but we truly have the potential to cure cancer. We have it in our hands. We are curing cancer,” he said.

“What we need to do is to extrapolate what we’re doing to all patients with all forms of cancer, and we have the capacity to do that,” Gilliland said. “We’ve made extraordinary progress in the past two years towards that goal.”

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