India and the US can together beat cancer - Hindustan Times

India and the US can together beat cancer

Jul 24, 2023 09:40 PM IST

The US Cancer Moonshot initiative is now a global effort, and the partnership with India could help achieve its goals faster.

The most important announcement that the White House made during the Prime Minister (PM)’s visit wasn’t the technology partnerships or the purchase of defence equipment, it was the joining of forces against the deadliest of diseases. Cancer has killed more people than any war ever has. Working together, both countries will achieve more than the White House has dreamt about in not only reducing the incidence of cancer, but also curing it.

India is better positioned than any country in the world to collect data from tens of millions of people to build the AI models that can not only identify many more cancer cures(Pixabay)
India is better positioned than any country in the world to collect data from tens of millions of people to build the AI models that can not only identify many more cancer cures(Pixabay)

In 1971, United States (US) President Richard Nixon signed the National Cancer Act, initiating a determined battle against the disease. Fast forward to 2016, when then vice-president Joe Biden launched the Cancer Moonshot with a $1.8 billion investment, aiming to expedite progress against cancer through improved data sharing, accessibility, and advancements in precision medicine. Building upon this, President Joe Biden relaunched the Cancer Moonshot in 2022, setting a target of reducing cancer incidence by 50% in 25 years and allocating a budget of $2.8 billion in 2023 to support this endeavour.

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Yet, after six decades of efforts, the accomplishments stand disappointingly modest, and the aspirations have dwindled. While strides have been made in smoking cessation and proactive cancer screening, the battle against many cancer types, particularly metastatic tumours, has seen meagre advancements. The prevailing treatment landscape primarily relies on the imprecise tools of surgery, radiation and chemotherapy, burdened with debilitating side effects. Moreover, even in cases of successful treatment, cancer survivors are haunted by the constant spectre of disease recurrence. In less privileged nations, access to diagnoses and treatments becomes an arduous struggle, leading to a distressing surge in cancer mortality rates.

The impossible, however, has become possible recently. The last decade witnessed dramatic cost reductions in gene sequencing and exponential advancements in computational biology, with Artificial Intelligence (AI) at the vanguard, unleashing a seismic shift. But AI needs massive amounts of data to work.

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India is better positioned than any country in the world to collect data from tens of millions of people to build AI models that can not only identify many more cancer cures but also make it possible to create personalised cancer medicine. The US has the best AI talent on the planet and the financial resources to fund the enormous number crunching required for decoding the cancer genome. Working together, India and the US can wipe out cancer and finally make precision medicine not only a reality but affordable for all.

A major contributor to this initiative is one of the partners mentioned in the White House announcement, Karkinos Healthcare. In a previous column, I had explained how Karkinos, which is funded by the who’s who of Indian industry, including Ratan Tata, has the strong support of PM Narendra Modi himself. It is building the most advanced cancer care network in the world and being guided by some of the top oncology researchers at Harvard Medical School and Mayo Clinic.

Unlike anything seen in the West, Karkinos is successfully integrating India’s once-fragmented cancer care system, delivering consistent, high-quality, and more affordable treatments even to the most remote regions of the country. This feat is made possible through their innovative IT platform, which connects various trained practitioners and specialists in a seamless and coordinated manner. From conducting cancer risk assessments at citizens’ doorsteps to performing mammograms in mobile camp units, conducting genome sequencing in labs, administering chemotherapy at daycare centres, planning radiation therapy, and prescribing treatments through its virtual tumour board, Karkinos ensures that everyone involved in the care process has access to a single, comprehensive view of relevant information.

This unified approach empowers each professional to perform their duties effectively and, most importantly, puts the patient at the centre of the entire process. In addition to this goldmine of medical data, Karkinos is collecting and cryogenically preserving bio-samples such as tumour tissue, blood, saliva, and microbiome. As Keith T Flaherty, director of clinical research at Harvard/MGH Cancer Center, noted, “Karkinos is on a trajectory to collect the largest amount of pathologic, clinical, radiologic, and molecular data of any entity in the world. Combined with functional screening data in freshly collected tumour specimens and subjecting all of these data dimensions to machine learning, they will take a quantum leap into the era of precision medicine toward which we have been struggling.” Karkinos stands as one of India’s many scientific leaps. Notably, India’s Ayushman Bharat Digital Mission plays a pivotal role by promoting and mandating seamless interoperability among all healthcare systems in the country, transcending the reductionist compartmentalisation commonly witnessed in the West. This endeavour opens a realm of incredible opportunities for groundbreaking research and the pursuit of cures.

This is likely why the US decided to make its Cancer Moonshot a global initiative. As Catharine Young, assistant director of the Cancer Moonshot Policy, said to me in an email “While the efforts of the Cancer Moonshot have been largely domestic, its ambitions are not contained within our own borders. Working together with international partners, like India, will ensure that we not only reach the President’s goal of decreasing the number of cancer deaths in the US by 50% over the next 25 years, but that we decrease the burden of cancer around the world.”

Thanks to an equal partnership with India, the US cancer moonshot may have the booster rocket it needs to vastly exceed these goals — and cure cancer — much quicker than 25 years.

Vivek Wadhwa is an academic, entrepreneur, and author. The views expressed are personal

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