We recently sat down with oncologist Dr. Azra Raza of Columbia University to discuss her book, The First Cell, our fight to shift healthcare paradigms toward prevention and early detection, and how the Powering Precision Health (PPH) movement and Quanterix can help lead the battle cry for change. Interestingly, I was with Cleveland Clinic executives, healthcare executives, and state of Ohio government officials earlier in the week, and we had the exact same discussion and call to action.
The conversation is part of our increased effort to promote awareness around the work we are doing to eradicate cancer through the SP-X and other instruments, as well as the PPH foundation, vision, and summits.
Our discussion began with big picture remarks on current approaches to the war on cancer, including several missteps that must be corrected. Among these, Dr. Raza pointed out that, in the United States, we take our health for granted and largely ignore health maintenance until we are sick—a result of both an improperly incentivized system and a pervasive cultural mindset. Our current cancer treatment protocol, referred to as “slash, poison, and burn” for surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation, is practically paleolithic in its barbarity.
As we know, the problem isn’t just that we haven’t found a solution for cancer, it’s that we aren’t even seeing the true problem: we are treating cancer much too late in the disease progression and use far too few of our resources innovating approaches to prevent the disease in the first place. Instead, Dr. Raza, and our PPH movement, finds answers in increased prevention and detection. Biomarkers in particular are a great option for identifying the earliest footprints of cancer and answers on how disease triggers and environmental factors are impacting our bodies at an individual and personal level.
As Dr. Raza explained, we’ve been aware of the need for early detection for a long time. As early as 1903, cancer experts stressed that delay in medical action—not the disease alone—was what led to most deaths. Through the 20th century, an increase in Pap smears, PSA tests, and anti-smoking campaigns have confirmed our collective awareness of early detection’s benefit. Conversely, because advanced cancer is actually a rapidly multiplying collection of new mutations and therefore new cancers, our ability to treat and eliminate all of them in one individual becomes less likely the longer we wait.
What’s more, the current system is broken. Dr. Raza recounted decades of overseeing the same therapy routine, prescribing the same limited rotation of drugs in the same “7+3 regimen” (these numbers describing the days of each drug’s administration) since she began working in medicine in the 1970s. 95% of clinical trials for cancer drugs fail, and the drugs that do succeed cost on average $100K per year, but only extend life for an average of 2.5 months.
After years of seeing 30-40 patients per week and performing 5-10 bone marrow procedures per day, Dr. Raza finally realized that the particular cancer manifestation she specializes in, known as MDS, wouldn’t be cured within her lifetime. Instead, she first recognized that our system must be financially incentivized toward early detection. The availability of money for cancer research isn’t an issue; plenty of funding exists, but it focuses almost exclusively on end-stage cancer. As a result, entire industries have sprung up to profit from treating the side-effects of highly toxic cancer drugs. In contrast, biomarkers and other important technologies, such as implantable bloodstream devices and smart toilets, showers, bed sheets, and even bras that can detect cancerous materials, represent great promise. Dr. Raza also took direct action by collecting samples from over 60K patient volunteers in order to examine how precancerous conditions develop step-by-step into full-blown cancers. In this way, she hopes to better understand the timing and methods of early intervention.
Here is where we come in with our “swinging for the fence” PPH vision and movement to inspire global researchers, investors and innovators to pioneer early detection using less invasive sampling techniques that the biomarker revolution is enabling. As the pioneer of the biomarker revolution, and especially in light of the 1.7 million new cases that will be diagnosed this year (according to the American Cancer Society), we want to encourage healthier habits and reduce negative environmental influences. We’re taking the lead from several developed countries that have extended the average lifespan of their citizens 5-8 years longer than Americans and that simultaneously avoid the hefty prices our system pays for treating cancers. Of course, disease doesn’t discriminate, but with prevention, we too can give ourselves a fighting chance of dying gracefully.
Paramount in our vision is someday enabling everyone to know what their healthy baseline levels of biomarkers are at an individual level and empowering each and every person to control their own health destiny by monitoring their biomarker profiles opposite their healthy baselines. Understanding how one’s lifestyle impacts their health at a molecular biochemical level is within reach. We are on the doorstep of inciting a revolution in precision medicine and preventative care by enabling and empowering the personal management of one’s biomarkers.
Physicians should look at everything they do through the prism of human anguish in order to re-center the patient as the most important focus of medicine. As Dr. Raza said, “our health, our future, and the next generation are at stake if we don’t take action now. By enabling earlier administration of drugs in smaller doses with less toxicity, helping pharma companies more appropriately target drug development, facilitating expert collaboration through PPH, and acquiring related companies and technologies into one ecosystem, we are working to realize the very world Dr. Raza described. In my view, Dr. Raza is a true pioneer and hero that is applying her lifetime of sacrifice, learning, anguish and experience to battle one of the most lethal diseases of our lifetime and we happen to agree on how to win this battle.