01 Jun 2018

Floor It

Speeding toward a better model for fighting cancer
by Julia Hanna; illustration by Mengxin Li


The sci-fi future for cancer treatment has become a reality, with breakthrough therapies that can use a cancer patient’s genetic information to create personalized treatments or employ the body’s immune response to treat disease.

But for too many patients, dysfunctions and blockages in the cancer research ecosystem have delayed the delivery of lifesaving advances. Think of it as a plumbing problem: The third-floor shower in an old house doesn’t have enough water pressure. The problem may be with the third-floor pipe, but it’s far more likely that the issue lies elsewhere, with the line leading from the street to the house itself.

That insight, coupled with the radical nature of precision medicine, led to a realization: A “business as usual” approach wouldn’t do the trick; a different way of fighting cancer required an equally innovative approach to developing and delivering new cures. That’s the imperative of the Kraft Precision Medicine Accelerator, established in 2016 with a $20 million gift from the Robert and Myra Kraft Family Foundation, led by Robert Kraft (MBA 1965), in partnership with HBS and the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard. “The number of breakthroughs we’ll see coming out of labs over the next 10 years will surpass anything we’ve experienced in the past,” says HBS senior fellow Richard Hamermesh, who co-chairs the accelerator with Kathy Giusti (MBA 1985). “Looking ahead, we expect to have the ecosystem in place to improve patient engagement and data access so that we can help get clinical trials done and move the pace of discovery even quicker.” How do they expect to get there? Here, a look at the accelerator’s model, which comprises four work streams, each inspecting a different part of the pipeline.

Building Consumer Confidence

“Without access to the patient’s tissue and data, you will never understand what the new precision medicine targets might be or how to use available drugs,” says Giusti. To improve that access, the accelerator brought together leaders at direct-to-consumer enterprises and five leading cancer organizations, drawing on the experience of businesses including Keurig, Peloton, and Rent the Runway to develop more effective strategies to engage and educate patients about precision medicine, the need for genetic testing, and the importance of sharing that information. Techniques included developing an emotive brand to draw people in, using more social media, employing jargon-free language, and “making everything simple and straightforward, from our registration process to the questions we ask,” says Giusti.

Better Data Crunching

The investment required to gather data can make institutions reluctant to share what they have. The accelerator brings together research foundations with relevant datasets and analytics companies to leverage the latest in artificial intelligence and machine learning, with the ultimate goal of identifying models that produce the best results. Currently, the accelerator is focused on a case study with the Multiple Myeloma Research Foundation, GNS Healthcare, the Moffitt Cancer Center’s ORIEN program, and biotech firm Foundation Medicine.

Rethinking Drug Trials

In an adaptive platform trial, different drugs are simultaneously tested in multiple arms of the same trial. Drugs that aren’t working may be more quickly eliminated; patients then can be moved over to the arms of the trial that are seeing a response. The group is working to analyze indicators contributing to the successes and challenges of platform trials; identifying best business practices for attracting the best therapeutics; and disseminating findings in real time. Currently, the Kraft team is tracking ongoing trials for pancreatic cancer, glioblastoma, multiple myeloma, and immune therapies.

Finding Funding Fixes

The Kraft team is also focused on alternative thinking around philanthropy and investment, including venture-based approaches that consider the ROI necessary to attract investors. “Delivering philanthropic and investment dollars into the areas with the most potential for accelerating cures is our top priority,” Giusti says. “We need to bring together money and incentives with the best ideas and people.” Hamermesh notes that only one or two disease foundations currently have a venture philanthropy fund. In addition, more and more private-sector companies are focusing their efforts on a single disease. “Those are both areas of investment that could really move the needle,” he says.

From Baker Library:

Do you want to know more about how precision medicine rose to the forefront of medical research today? See "A New Initiative on Precision Medicine" published in the New England Journal of Medicine in 2015. The article provides an overview of the Precision Medicine Initiative and highlights the steps that need to be taken to ensure the success of this program. If you’re interested in gaining a better understanding of other emerging topics noted in the accelerator’s model—including venture philanthropy, adaptive platform trials, or artificial intelligence—let Baker help you learn more.

Featured Alumni

Featured Alumni

Class of MBA 1965, Section C
Class of MBA 1985, Section A
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