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By definition, the internet is good at making connections. Sometimes those connections are just handy — like advice from a Facebook parenting group — and sometimes they can save lives, like the army of volunteers who organized rescue missions during Hurricane Harvey.
Dr. Tony Blau wants to put those connections to work for a very specific purpose: defeating cancer.
After over 30 years as a researcher, Blau founded a startup that he thinks will radically change cancer treatment. It’s called All4Cure, and it connects patients, their data and experts from around the world in an online community to help patients figure out what treatment will work best to defeat their cancer.
We speak with Blau about the story behind All4Cure and the challenges of personalized medicine in this episode of GeekWire’s Health Tech podcast. As you’ll hear on the show and read below, the fight against cancer is personal for Blau for another reason, as well.
Blau has studied cancer at the University of Washington for almost 30 years. In fact, it’s a family affair — his wife, Sibel, also works in cancer as an oncologist.
In 2010, Blau had a sudden realization: Looking at Sibel’s work and comparing it to his, he realized that cancer patients aren’t seeing the full benefits of all the technology and science we have available.
“I used to tell people that I would know more about what’s going on in a mouse in my lab than my wife would know about what’s going on in her patients,” he said.
When Blau is running an experiment on a few dozen mice, he can take the time to understand the data on every mouse’s cancer, then compare it to all the other mice and all the data he logged in other experiments.
If you could do that for a human cancer patient, you could predict what treatments would be most effective. That general concept is called personalized medicine, and it’s a hot topic in cancer treatment.
But the reality is oncologists and other doctors don’t have the luxury that Blau has in his lab. No doctor has the time or expertise to do that kind of analysis for every single patient and, unlike Blau’s set of mice, they don’t have data on how other people reacted to treatments.
“The problem that we’re trying to address is that a million patients with cancer in the United States receive chemotherapy every year. They respond to treatment or they don’t, but collectively, we learn almost nothing from those experiences,” Blau said. “The knowledge that’s captured from those million experiences is lost.”
“What we’re trying to do is create a forum where every cancer patient’s experience contributes to an ever-growing body of knowledge that makes us progressively smarter about how cancer works,” he said.
Blau decided to leap into action. He helped found the Center for Cancer Innovation at the UW and built an online platform designed to help women with triple negative breast cancer decipher their data and find new treatments.
Blau was up to his elbows in cancer data, working to help women around the world connect to experts on specific genetic mutations in their tumors. But suddenly, that changed.
“Out of the blue — about two and a half years ago — I developed some hip pain, and I got an x-ray, and it turned out that I found out that I myself have myeloma,” a form of blood cancer, he said.
Blau stopped working. He had two stem cell transplants, a technology he had spent his career studying. And as a patient, he had a new perspective on the work he had been doing for so long.
“From the perspective of a patient, I became even more fervently convinced that this is the right approach,” he said. “This is exactly what I, as a patient, want — to have a detailed characterization of what’s going on, and then access to the very best expertise and advice that the world can provide.”
“I really found at All4Cure during some of the more intensive bits of treatment that I had for my myeloma,” he said. Sibel co-founded and co-leads the company with him.
The transplants worked, and Blau is now in complete remission. With his own treatment in the rearview mirror, he hunkered down to start building All4Cure.
Blau is confident that the platform can help individual patients get better treatment, and also that its approach to data collection is the future of cancer.
For the moment, All4Cure is only working with myeloma patients, their doctors and specialists on the disease. It has about 140 members, about 100 of whom are patients.
Here’s how it works: All4Cure works with patients to get their health records and detailed information on their treatments. The company also gets samples of patients’ cancer cells. The cells are then processed using next generation sequencing, which generates billions of data points on the cancers’ genetics.
All that data is then put on the cloud — a HIPAA secure section of Amazon Web Services — and turned into a personalized dashboard of each patient’s cancer experience.
It shows their genetic mutations, all their treatments and how different biometrics changed in response to each treatment. The dashboard also has a discussion section where the patient can interact with others on the platform.
“A patient that’s on that platform might complain of a side effect, or they might ask a question, or their doctor may ask a question that would appear on their dashboard,” Blau explained.
He gave one example when a patient’s doctor had asked a question about a specific treatment. One of the myeloma experts on the platform — Harvard researcher Ken Anderson — jumped in to suggest a different treatment that the patient’s doctor didn’t know about.
“He gave a suggestion that we would not have known to even think about for that patient. Then of course, in turn, that same suggestion could be applicable to other patients that show up on our platform,” Blau said.
The platform is completely free for patients to use, and so far the Blaus have bootstrapped the startup. Blau said they are planning to start a Kickstarter in early 2018 and are also seeking support from the Leukemia and Lymphoma society to grow the platform to 500 patients.
After that, the startup will bring in money by selling data to pharmaceutical companies, who often find value in knowing how patients take their products.
Blau said he hopes to add more features as the platform grows, including a way to automatically share personalized information with patients as they sign up, machine learning elements that help leverage the massive amounts of data and new platforms or sub-sections for other kinds of cancer.