22nd March 2018
Ashley Davies joined Havas Lynx as a Medical Writer after leaving academic research for a career in big pharma. Ashley recently attended WIRED Health 2018 to learn more about advances and trends which are shaping the future of our industry.
At Havas Lynx, we are acutely aware of the impact advancements in technology and treatment development are having on the lives of patients, not least, cancer patients. This is why we have recently launched Switched ONcology, a thought leader campaign that unites powerful insights to highlight opportunities as to how we can improve the cancer care continuum. It is also why I recently attended WIRED Health 2018 – to hear and learn from the leading technologists, entrepreneurs and innovators shaping the health industry today.
Understanding next-generation cancer therapies
My day kicked off with a talk from Bruce Levine who explained how chimeric antigen receptor T cell (CAR-T) therapy has the potential to cure supposedly incurable cancers. CAR-T involves using genetically engineered immune cells that recognise and target cancer – so far, it’s had some success. But, drug discovery is only revolutionary when it means something real for the millions of patients facing cancer on a daily basis. One example shared by Levine was the story of Emily – she is now 5 years’ cancer free because of CAR-T. Because of his interest in emerging therapies, Emily went on to meet President Obama, who had heard all about her story.
CAR-T is one of several next-generation cancer treatments with the potential to cause a dynamic shift in our expectations of patient outcomes – another such game-changer is immuno-oncology (IO). The individual successes of therapies like CAR-T or IO show how cancer’s identity is changing – instead of a death sentence, cancer is slowly becoming a disease to live with. For Switched ONcology, this a key theme we want to explore – what impact does the advancement in oncology treatments have on the long-term welfare of the patient, and what impact will this play on our culture and society?
Harnessing bacteria to target cancer
Cancer is caused by mutated cells, mediated by our own immune systems, which turn on us to cause disease from within. However, recent research by Simba Gill at Evelo Biosciences has shown us that there is huge potential for the microbes that live in our guts to act on our behalf and modulate immune-related diseases. This begs the question for Switched ONcology to consider: can we use our own gut bacteria to target cancer?
Simba discussed the effect of the gut-body network and microbes to fight disease, specifically. Our guts and the symbiotic microbes that live within affect our whole biology and how we operate as human beings – acting as a monitoring system for disease. Simba’s team at Evelo Biosciences are currently investigating the role of microbes as therapeutics, with results expected next year. If successful, the implications of this are potentially huge.
If cancer could be treated by an individual’s own microbes, then their perspective of their disease and treatment could change. For too long, patients have felt powerless to their cancer and even to the treatments there to help them. With increasingly personalised diagnoses and treatments, are these advancements changing the balance of power and allowing patients to have greater ownership of cancer? And what impact could this have on their physical and psychological response to cancer? As part of Switched ONcology, this is another theme we are interested in exploring further.
Monitoring health using tech
Moving away from oncology briefly, there were also a few talks that piqued my interest, related to the emerging changes in health monitoring using technology. We are all becoming increasingly technologically-literate ‘prosumers’ of health and these developments indicate the wider societal change of taking our health into our own hands and smartphones.
I was keen to hear an update on Ada, the AI chatbot app developed by doctors for doctors. Claire Novorol, who Havas Lynx have partnered with previously as part of our exploration of millennial healthcare professionals, explained how her company developed Ada. Patients use the app to check their symptoms – Ada will suggest a diagnosis based on decision support metadata. Patients can take her advice to their doctor, thus making the consultation and diagnosis more efficient for both. In our era of increasingly stretched healthcare systems, as well as tech-literate millennial healthcare professionals, Ada may offer a connective support solution for all involved. To see Claire discuss the changing role of the mHCP go to here.
Tania Boler’s eye-opening talk outlined another area where tech is increasingly important. Women’s reproductive health issues present a huge unmet need. Put simply, we are not talking about women’s pelvic floors enough, never mind the physical and emotional trauma that they endure, typically caused by childbirth. However, the time is now for ‘femtech’ to step in. Tania’s company have created a solution for women’s damaged pelvic floors using connectivity and user-centred design to improve outcomes: Elvie. Google it. Elvie represents the first wave of a paradigm shift towards femtech, and frankly, women’s health is now a no-brainer for investors. It’s about time.
Designing future cancer trials
Jess Mills is a new friend to Havas Lynx, and recently took part in the Switched ONcology Caregiver Experience focus group, providing immeasurable insight from her experience as a carer to her mother, Tessa Jowell. It would have been impossible not to be moved and motivated by her account of how she and her mother have been galvanised into action after her glioblastoma diagnosis. They’re campaigning for better patient access to cancer treatment and adaptive collaborative trials (ACTs).
This is a critical step in redesigning the traditional randomised controlled trials (RCTs) evidence collection model. Unlike RCTs, ACTs can allow us to interrogate the optimal benefit of a cancer therapy without affecting the study’s validity. Using an ACT instead of an RCT means that we can widen patient access to a potentially beneficial but still experimental cancer therapy before it is approved, traditionally only an option for the super-rich. But, as Dr Jack Kreindler put it, “it’s about access for billions, not just billionaires”. I wholeheartedly agree – ACTs are a huge step for oncology and we are likely to see their use more and more in future. This also raises the question of the balance between the importance of treatment innovations versus process revolutions.
Hearing Jess’ experience was the perfect human way to end a day of medical innovation. Without getting too trite, we can get excited by slick design and cool new tech, but developments in cancer treatment approaches are ultimately about improving the patients’ experience and quality of life.
WIREDHealth 2018 in summary
WIREDHealth 2018 was fantastic – I was awed, entertained and educated. Looking forward, I’m particularly interested to see how the new cancer treatment and trial horizons write up evolve. Developments in health innovation as well as oncology are moving ever-faster and it’s important for us to continue to keep in front of these.