The battle against cancer remains one of the greatest challenges doctors and researchers face; the American Cancer Society estimates that in the United States alone there will be more than 1.7 million new cancer diagnoses in 2018. Despite advances, the decline in cancer-related death rates has been described as “relatively modest,” causing many in the field to seek new, more aggressive paradigms.

“Over the last sixty or seventy years we’ve come from three cancer treatment modalities, all of which were debilitating — you cut it out, burn it out or you poison it,” Martin J. Murphy, Jr., DMedSc, Ph.D., CEO of Project Data Sphere, LLC (an open-access cancer data-sharing research platform), notes. “Now, precision medicines and the powerful new generation of immuno-oncology drugs are starting to replace those toxic therapies.”

Zhen Su, M.D., MBA, Chief Medical Officer, North America, EMD Serono (the biopharmaceutical division of Merck KGaA, Darmstadt, Germany in the United States and Canada and a strategic collaborator of Project Data Sphere), agrees. “The information we’re getting about cancer is increasing in an exponential fashion. But it’s also challenging because cancer can outsmart most of the treatments. The good news is," he adds, "some patients are living longer.”

Leveraging big data

Organizations like Project Data Sphere are seeking to challenge old paradigms of cancer research. “Fifty years of cancer clinical data — millions of volunteers, patients with cancer who volunteered to become clinical trial subjects — is sitting on computer hard drives around the world,” Dr. Murphy explains, “and now we're able to go to the holders of that data and invite them in a responsible way — keeping faith with patients by removing personal information and identifiers — to migrate those data into a digital library-laboratory.”

Using sophisticated analytic tools, these data have the potential to revolutionize cancer research. "Any advance has to be measurable," Dr. Murphy explains. "If the numbers are small — think about the challenges of picking up a small signal, a molecular event. If you’re able to aggregate big data, that tiny, tiny signal is going to grow in size and in its intensity, and your ability to detect that otherwise undetectable signal will grow measurably.”

Real-world applications

Dr. Su notes that applying “big data” tools to cancer research is already yielding exciting results. “Recently we developed a treatment for a rare cancer; in the past, it would have been very difficult to develop a treatment for this cancer because the number of patients is very small. By leveraging data analytical capabilities, we were able to advance the treatment for this rare cancer.”

“In clinical trials, you have almost a contrived population of cancer patients that are highly pre-selected,” notes Dr. Murphy. “The drug is approved, and it goes into the real world. And that’s when we discover differences. We’ve never been able to take the clinical trial data sets and the real-world patients and compare and contrast them in this way. Now we can.”

Dr. Murphy notes that it’s not just researchers and organizations working to speed up cancer research, but regulatory bodies as well. “Over the last two decades, health regulators have initiated a program that responsibly shortens the time needed for a medicine to receive an approval by using more easily obtained data.”

Cooperation at this level is also seen as crucial by Dr. Su to a brighter future in cancer research and treatment. “It is the notion that we are smarter together — of using the power of our collective efforts and brainpower.”