By: Ellie Kincaid
By the time he was diagnosed with metastatic melanoma, Luke Simons, now 83, had already watched his wife and his longtime business partner struggle with cancer. His wife had chemo for her breast cancer 20 years ago. His business partner with multiple myeloma died 5 years ago. “I was obviously aware of what it could do,” he says of cancer. And of chemo, “My God, that can be just horrible what that can do to you.”
As soon as he got the diagnosis, Simons’ doctor at Vanderbilt-Ingram Cancer Center (where his wife is on the board) told him about how president Jimmy Carter’s metastatic melanoma had just become undetectable after taking Merck’s new drug Keytruda, which enables a person’s immune system to recognize and attack cancer cells. The doctor gave Simons the option of Keytruda, and he took it.
After his first dose, Simons developed pneumonitis, which he aptly describes as a “fever in my lungs,” that made his doctor question whether to continue the treatment. He did, and the cancer that had spread to Simons’ brain and pancreas is not showing up on scans three years later.
Developing tools to predict which patients will have reactions to immunotherapy like Simons’, and how best to treat them, is one of the goals of a five-year partnership around cancer care Vanderbilt and GE Healthcare are announcing today. The partners hope that applying GE Healthcare’s artificial intelligence tools to Vanderbilt’s large resources of deidentified health records from patients like Simons who have received immunotherapies will yield insights to help guide treatment decisions.
“The goal for both of us is a toolbox for the clinician, not just identifying patients who are likely to respond to treatment, but more effectively monitoring what treatments are working, and how pharmaceutical companies can potentially select patients for clinical studies that are more likely to be responsive to the treatment,” GE Healthcare president and chief executive Kieran Murphy said. “Our ability to industrialize some of what [Vanderbilt] does makes this really quite a powerful combination.”
“What you’d really like to do is not overtreat a patient with immunotherapy or treat patients that are not responding for another three months,” Vanderbilt University Medical Center president and chief executive Jeff Balser said. In addition to analysing health records, the partners will also work on developing new tracers for PET imaging studies that can more closely track the progress—or remission—of cancer. If doctors know sooner that an immunotherapy isn’t working for a patient, they can be spared the risk of side effects and expense.
Cell therapies are a third area of focus for the partnership. “GE has played a huge role in the supply chain, industrialization and processes necessary to deliver CAR-T,” Balser said. “We’re going to be working with them to figure out ways to streamline those processes, only administer CAR-T cells that best benefit patients and predict side effects.” They will also try to develop cell therapies that will be effective in more types of cancer than the blood cancers for which they’re currently FDA-approved.
Academic medical centers develop things that work in their own specific setting, Balser says, but GE offers the potential to scale up. “Industrialization of machine learning around cancer care might be a way of thinking about how we work together,” Balser says. “We see a future of precision health which is enabled by fully integrating academic medical centers like Vanderbilt with industrial partners like ourselves, in combination with pharma partners,” said Murphy, referencing a partnership with Roche that GE announced last year at the J.P. Morgan Healthcare conference.
Barbara Jacoby is an award winning blogger that has contributed her writings to multiple online publications that have touched readers worldwide.