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Genomic supercomputer promises cancer treatment analysis in under a minute

8 October 2012
Appeared in BioNews 676

A computer-based platform which looks to greatly speed up genetic analysis of tumours has been unveiled in the USA. Currently such analysis can take up to eight weeks; the new platform promises to deliver results in just 47 seconds.

Although there is some debate as to whether faster DNA analysis will lead to improved cancer care, over the last 12 months more than 2,000 cancer clinics - representing 8,000 oncologists and nurses - have successfully installed and used a major component of the new platform.

The computer system is the result of a partnership between several American healthcare companies including healthcare insurers Blue Shield and the Chan Soon-Shiong Institute for Advanced Health, an organisation founded by Dr Patrick Soon-Shiong, a former surgeon turned billionaire healthcare entrepreneur.

'For the first time oncologists can compare virtually every known treatment option on the basis of genetics, risk and cost before treatment begins', declares a statement from the Chan Soon-Shiong Institute.

The network links cancer clinics across the USA and doctors using the system will help improve the database by sharing DNA analyses and other patient information. The companies promoting the network say that evaluating a cancer's molecular pathways earlier on means that doctors can more easily select appropriate therapies for patients.

The network looks to make good on one of the earliest promises of personalised cancer medicine - that it will enable treatment selection on the grounds of biological characteristics as much as anatomical location. 'A patient with breast cancer could benefit from the positive results discovered from a patient with lung cancer, if the underlying molecular pathways involving both cancers were the same', claims the statement.

Paul Markovich, Blue Shield's president and soon-to-be chief executive, told the Los Angeles Times that 'considerable time and money is spent now on ineffective cancer treatments'. He said that the new system can 'help identify more accurately the proper diagnosis and most effective treatment options by cross-checking medical databases, algorithms, and the patient's own genetic information in some cases'.

However, the arrival of the new system has not met with universal acclaim. Dr Michael Mann, associate professor of cardiothoracic surgery at the University of California, San Francisco, described as a 'cancer genetics expert' by Fox News told the news channel: 'It's completely wrong to say that patients are being harmed because genomic analyses are too slow. You can get these tests back in a week, which is plenty of time for expeditious patient care'.

'It's misleading to imply that increasing the speed at which information becomes available to a clinician will improve outcomes for cancer patients'.

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