The American health-care industry’s pivot to personalized medicine has attracted the interest of an unlikely group of companies — government contractors.
As health-care providers explore this new model of treatment, which involves the study of the human genome to provide personalized care, they face a problem with which many in government are familiar: analyzing an overwhelming amount of data.
“We’re literally drowning in data,” said Norman Sharpless, an oncologist and director of the University of North Carolina’s Lineberger Comprehensive Cancer Center.
The amount of information generated from sequencing human genes is growing at a rapid clip, and it has triggered a rush of clinical trials aimed at linking that knowledge to medical treatment. Cataloguing all this new information requires computational power and sophisticated analysis, Sharpless said.
For IT contractors, many of which are based in the Washington region, the flood of information presents a simple business opportunity: The same skills used to crunch massive amounts of data for cyberthreats or warfare intelligence can be applied to personalized medicine.
The government’s growing interest in this field also is a factor.
In his State of the Union speech this year, President Obama outlined an initiative to explore the uses of precision medicine. His budget includes a request for $215 million to fund research in this area. The White House also hired its first chief data scientist, DJ Patil, who has made precision medicine one of his priorities.
Many contractors, especially those in information technology, have been eager to pursue opportunities in precision medicine as they look to add lines of business to make up for cuts in other parts of the federal budget as overall spending slows.
That is why so many different kinds of businesses — including defense giants Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman, and cloud storage providers such as Amazon Web Services and Google — are getting in on the game.
Lockheed Martin announced a partnership this year with Illumina, a San Diego company that provides relatively inexpensive genome sequencing technology, to study the DNA of populations and develop personalized health-care solutions. For Illumina, the partnership offered access to Lockheed’s experience in managing large-scale information systems, Alex Dickinson, Illumina’s senior vice president of strategic initiatives, said at the time.
Northrop Grumman said it would collaborate with the University of Maryland Baltimore County to study millions of electronic health records for insights into maladies such as diabetes, obesity and cardiovascular diseases. The project is funded by a grant from the National Science Foundation. More than 1 million records have been analyzed since the partnership was announced in April, the company said.
Health-care analytics is a small portion of Northrop’s overall business, but the company sees great potential in the field, given interest from government clients including the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the Department of Veterans Affairs, said Amy Caro, a Northrop vice president and general manager of the company’s health division.
In Northern Virginia, the Inova hospital system is opening a 117-acre research campus dedicated to personalized medicine and the fight against cancer. Executives have expressed a desire to partner with companies in the region.
The cancer center at the University of North Carolina is one of 14 around the country that have joined forces with IBM this year to test whether the Jeopardy-winning supercomputer Watson can sort through huge volumes of data to assist in cancer treatment.
Sharpless said physicians are teaching Watson to analyze a growing body of medical literature on personalized medicine. They hope eventually to train Watson to assist oncologists in choosing drugs targeted at specific gene mutations.
Providers of cloud storage also stand to benefit from the move to personalized medicine.
Since 2012, Amazon Web Services has hosted public data about the human genome on its cloud platform in partnership with the National Institutes of Health. The program is part of the White House’s Big Data Initiative, which aims to make information more accessible to researchers.
UNC’s cancer center is running a pilot program with Google to store patient data securely in the company’s cloud and potentially save on data storage costs, Sharpless said.
Despite the interest in personalized medicine, physicians caution that it is still a nascent field and warn against the notion that it could be a panacea.
For the vast majority of patients today, DNA sequencing offers little insight beyond what traditional approaches yield, said Michael Joyner, a professor of anesthesiology at the Mayo Clinic who has been vocal about the potential limitations of personalized medicine.
So far, research efforts have largely focused on cancer patients. But even within that group, the proportion of patients who have directly benefited from gene therapy is relatively small, Sharpless said.
In the long run, telling people they are more or less susceptible to a particular disease because of their genes could cause them to modify their behavior in extreme ways, Joyner said.
“We need to have more open debate and discussion about what this will do to improve public health,” he said.