In 1971, U.S. President Richard Nixon signed the “National Cancer Act,” initiating a determined battle against cancer. Fast forward to 2016, and (then) Vice President Joe Biden launched the Cancer Moonshot with a $1.8 billion investment, aiming to expedite progress against cancer through improved data sharing, accessibility, and advancements in precision medicine. Building upon this, President Biden relaunched the Cancer Moonshot in 2022, setting a target of reducing cancer incidence by 50% in 25 years and allocating a budget of $2.8 billion in 2023 to support this endeavor.
Yet, after six decades, the accomplishments stand disappointingly modest, and the aspirations have dwindled. While strides have been made in smoking cessation and proactive cancer screening, the battle against many cancer types, particularly metastatic tumors, has seen meager advancements. The prevailing treatment landscape primarily relies on the imprecise tools of radiation and chemotherapy, burdened with debilitating side effects. Moreover, even in cases of successful treatments, cancer survivors are haunted by the constant specter of disease recurrence. In less privileged nations, access to diagnoses and treatments becomes an arduous struggle, leading to a distressing surge in cancer mortality rates.
At long last, a momentous agenda has materialized in the arduous war on cancer. The last decade witnessed dramatic cost reductions in gene sequencing and exponential advancements in computational biology, with artificial intelligence (A.I.) at the vanguard, unleashing a seismic shift that has irrevocably altered the landscape.
By harnessing diverse datasets encompassing clinical data, genetic information, biomarkers, medical imaging, and lifestyle and environmental factors, coupled with A.I., intricate patterns, correlations, and potential causal relationships can be unearthed, leading to a better understanding of disease mechanisms, risk factors, and treatment responses. This synergistic approach also facilitates the discovery of natural remedies and pharmacological interventions capable of eradicating the disease.
A global partnership
A new partnership between the U.S. and India could finally unleash exponential improvements in cancer research and treatments is. On Jun. 23, President Biden announced a wave of public and private sector commitments aimed at reducing the burden of cancer on the subcontinent. Participants comprise a “who’s who” of research institutions and pharmaceutical and medical equipment companies such as the Dana Farber Cancer Institute, Duke University, Johnson and Johnson, and Roche. The announcement specifically called out A.I. as a new tool in the arsenal.
“While the efforts of the Cancer Moonshot have been largely domestic, its ambitions are not contained within our own borders. Working together with international partners, like India, will ensure that we not only reach the President’s goal of decreasing the number of cancer deaths in the United States by 50% over the next 25 years, but that we decrease the burden of cancer around the world,” Assistant Director of Cancer Moonshot Policy Catharine Young, who has been leading the global efforts, explained in an email.
This does really need to be a global partnership, as I have previously argued, because people in every country are suffering. To cure cancer, we must build a far more detailed understanding of how cancer biology works at the cellular and even molecular levels.
That can only come with a whole lot more data about how cancer develops in people across the globe. India is better positioned than any country in the world to collect massive quantities of data from tens of millions of people to finally build out the A.I. models that can not only identify many more cancer cures but even make it possible to create personalized cancer medicine. The U.S. has the best A.I. talent on the planet and the financial resources to fund the enormous number crunching required for decoding the cancer genome. Working together, India and the U.S. can wipe out cancer and finally make precision medicine not only a reality but also affordable for all.
Further along the journey towards curing cancer, India can roll out clinical trials faster and more economically. Due to cost pressures in India, cures and applications of proposed treatments must be much less expensive, and that will benefit cancer patients in Western countries, as well.
This is exactly what one of the key partners mentioned in the White House announcement, Karkinos Healthcare, is enabling. In a previous column, I explained how Karkinos, which has been funded by a who’s who of Indian industry, with the strong support of Prime Minister Narendra Modi himself, is building the most advanced cancer care network in the world. Unlike anything seen in the West, it is successfully integrating India’s once-fragmented cancer care system, delivering consistent, high-quality, and more affordable treatments even to the most remote regions of the country. This feat is made possible through their innovative I.T. platform, which connects various trained practitioners and specialists in a seamless and coordinated manner.
From conducting cancer risk assessments at citizens’ doorsteps to performing mammograms in mobile camp units, conducting genome sequencing in labs, administering chemotherapy at daycare centers, planning radiation therapy, and prescribing treatments, Karkinos ensures that everyone involved in the care process has access to a single, comprehensive view of relevant information. This unified approach empowers each professional to perform their duties effectively and, most importantly, puts the patient at the center of the entire process.
In addition to this goldmine of medical data, Karkinos is collecting and cryogenically preserving bio-samples such as tumor tissue, blood, saliva, and microbiome. As Keith T. Flaherty, Director of Clinical Research at MGH Cancer Center noted, “Karkinos is on a trajectory to collect the largest amount of pathologic, clinical, radiologic, and molecular data of any entity in the world. Combined with functional screening data in freshly collected tumor specimens and subjecting all of these data dimensions to machine learning, they will take a quantum leap into the era of precision medicine toward which we have been struggling.”
Karkinos stands as one of India’s many scientific leaps. Notably, India’s Ayushman Bharat Digital Mission plays a pivotal role by promoting and mandating seamless interoperability among all healthcare systems in the country, transcending the reductionist compartmentalization commonly witnessed in the West. This endeavor opens a realm of incredible opportunities for groundbreaking research and the pursuit of cures.
The U.S. Cancer Moonshot may finally have the booster rocket it needs and dramatically accelerate the resident’s goals. By working together as equal partners, India and the U.S. can deliver a knockout punch to cancer, hopefully within the next two decades.
Vivek Wadhwa is an academic, entrepreneur, and author. His book, From Incremental to Exponential, explains how large companies can see the future and rethink innovation.
The opinions expressed in Fortune.com commentary pieces are solely the views of their authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinions and beliefs of Fortune.
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