Healthcare // Patient Tools
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6/2/2014
08:30 AM
Alison Diana
Alison Diana
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Technology Declares War On Cancer

Cancer will cause more than half a million deaths in the US this year. Here's how smart pills, IBM Watson, customized treatments, and even social media are helping patients fight for their health.
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(Source: Pulmonary Pathology/Flickr)

(Source: Pulmonary Pathology/Flickr)

From simple apps to sophisticated solutions, technology plays an increasingly important role in diagnosing and treating cancer.

For decades, pharmaceutical companies have invested heavily in IT, using these systems to push their research and development teams to earlier discoveries in the quest for new cures. Now, less expensive -- yet even more powerful -- tools are providing healthcare professionals, patients, and the general public with ways to join the fray against a disease expected to kill an estimated 585,720 people in the United States this year.

Advances in gene sequencing and genomics have reduced the cost of research and treatment, speeding time to market and improving outcomes. The growing number of options is helping healthcare providers create more affordable personalized treatment plans, based on factors such as the type of cancer, size and age of growth, and the patient's medical history.

Personalization is at the core of a synthetic biology skunkworks project that Autodesk is undertaking. Led by Andrew Hessel, a team of designers, scientists, and programmers hopes to build hardware and software that makes it easier to design and fabricate living things, even human organs, according to BusinessWeek. Because each cancer tumor has its own DNA, Hessel wants to create tools that "synthesize viruses that will attack only cells carrying specific genetic markers," he told BusinessWeek. And because each medicine would be designed specifically for each patient, the US Food and Drug Administration would not need to get involved, Hessel noted, simplifying the process and making it accessible to non-pharmaceutical and non-medical organizations.

Testing is becoming more accessible, too, thanks to "smart" pills. Tiny cameras disguised as caplets replace uncomfortable procedures such as colonoscopies. Wirelessly transmitting data, these miniature devices don't require sedation, eliminating down time and loss of productivity in addition to increasing compliance with doctors' orders.

The cancer community is enjoying better collaboration via more traditional methods, too. Practitioner-oriented social media simplifies communication between researchers, physicians, oncologists, and pharmaceutical professionals, removing old barriers and letting caregivers educate themselves on powerful new tools and treatments available for patients. Venture-capital-funded startup SharePractice, for example, melds the diagnoses, medication, and dosage information of an Epocrates-like app with the crowd knowledge of Yelp and the social media features of Doximity, said founder Dr. Andrew Brandeis, in an interview.

Launched in November 2013, the community has about 5,000 members, he said. They include physicians and nurses, as well as nutritionists, pharmacists, acupuncturists, chiropractors, and other professionals charged with taking care of patients' health, including those fighting cancer.

"Everyone's talking about evidence-based medicine. We're an experience-based medicine," said Brandeis. "Most of these other social networks for doctors are not clinical reference tools; they're forums that only let doctors in. The same question gets repeated every few weeks. There's no good way of structuring their knowledge. In SharePractice, you just share [a question] and the treatment protocols are listed right there: Here are the protocols and here are the rankings of the protocols but if what you're familiar with is not there, you can add it. SharePractice gives clinical value because the information we share is so easily searched, it's structured, and it has the information you need to write a prescription for your patient."

Computers are breaking new ground, too. From miniscule computers developed by the Weizmann Institute of Science to advances in genomics, scientists are shrinking devices' sizes and expanding computers' capabilities to combat cancer's reach. Take a look at the innovative solutions we've found by clicking through our slideshow.

Do you know of other technological resources available to healthcare providers and patients in the war against cancer? Share your experiences in the comments section.

Alison Diana has written about technology and business for more than 20 years. She was editor, contributors, at Internet Evolution; editor-in-chief of 21st Century IT; and managing editor, sections, at CRN. She has also written for eWeek, Baseline Magazine, Redmond Channel ... View Full Bio

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Alison_Diana
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Alison_Diana,
User Rank: Author
6/5/2014 | 9:25:59 AM
Re: Interesting examples
Thanks, @Arsian, for the link. When i first began working on this report, I initially considered focusing on one particular type of cancer (for example, breast cancer or leukemia). The reason? There are so many exciting tech-based breakthroughs occurring around the world on specific cancers. However, I wanted to shine a spotlight on a broader array of work, hoping to spark some of the conversations we are now having. 

It truly is exciting to see how many great advances are being made at hospitals, universities, labs, and other facilities around the world -- and these are just the ones hitting the headlines. Who knows what is only in the early stages and cannot yet be discussed? It makes me hopeful that one day we will be able to prevent cancer or treat it with a series of much less invasive procedures.
Alison_Diana
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Alison_Diana,
User Rank: Author
6/5/2014 | 9:22:58 AM
Re: Interesting examples
I agree with you, @lightmike2, that the design of these smart pills is incredible. When you think of the potential uses throughout various diseases, these smart pills could help millions of people around the world -- especially if the cost to produce them is reduced. I don't know how much they cost today, but you'd think they're already lower than alternatives and, if produced in enough bulk, they'll become even more affordable. It's an exciting technology, that's for sure! 

I would think competitors also are working on similar smart pills, a step that helps all of us!
Alison_Diana
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Alison_Diana,
User Rank: Author
6/5/2014 | 9:20:27 AM
Re: Interesting examples
We've seen smart pills used as cameras in other diseases. They are less invasive than sticking a thin camera down a patient's throat, where there's always a risk to the patient no matter how thin the camera and filament. Personally, I'd rather swallow a pill camera than the alternative, I think.
Arslan004
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Arslan004,
User Rank: Apprentice
6/3/2014 | 6:43:22 PM
Re: Interesting examples
Its good to see the advancements in the treatment of cancer and i am very hopeful that one day this technology will give us a big breakthorough regarding cancer treatment. Find all about  cancer prevalence in United states by visiting 

10 Most Common Types Of Cancer In United States

lightmike2
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lightmike2,
User Rank: Apprentice
6/3/2014 | 2:04:02 PM
Re: Interesting examples
I'm impressed they are using a sivler oxide battery in the PillCam, but not suprised.  It is not toxic like most batteries, so not much risk if it does come apart while traveling through the digestive system with all it's digestive properties trying to tear everything into its constituent parts.  .   
Laurianne
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Laurianne,
User Rank: Author
6/2/2014 | 5:28:24 PM
Re: Interesting examples
I'm not eager to take the "smart pills." What do you think, readers?
danielcawrey
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danielcawrey,
User Rank: Ninja
6/2/2014 | 4:14:45 PM
Re: Interesting examples
I think that these smart pills are a great idea. Anything non-invasive I am all for. I'm not all up on the latest in medical science, but I would think it is better for procedures to be less invasive.

There has to be less risk of something going wrong with this technology, and it has to be more comfortable for the patient. 
Alison_Diana
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Alison_Diana,
User Rank: Author
6/2/2014 | 4:13:58 PM
Creative Minds
It's fascinating to see how developers are using really sophisticated technologies like Watson as well as inexpensive tools like apps. One of my faves? The "Genes in Space" game (slide 7). I hope the scientists behind the game use their smarts to develop similar tools for other diseases and conditions or specific types of cancer. Talk about taking gameification to the next level!
Alison_Diana
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Alison_Diana,
User Rank: Author
6/2/2014 | 4:10:57 PM
Re: Interesting examples
That is a really cool app that could save a lot of lives, given the number of people who don't get suspicious marks checked out early on. There's a company called InstaMD that's running an Indiegogo campaign right now for a headset that works with a stethescope. Patients record their own heartbeat or GI, for example, then share data with a doctor without having to leave their home. Of course, the big issue here is how on earth are physicians going to deal with this surge in data? As soon as healthcare organizations figure out that component, the sky's the limit -- and healthcare will dramatically improve!
Laurianne
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Laurianne,
User Rank: Author
6/2/2014 | 11:22:56 AM
Interesting examples
The DermoScreen app is an intriguing example, Alison. Makes you wonder about the many other health screenings for which smartphones will someday serve as assistants.
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