GE puts cancer in the crosshairs

By Mike Miliard
12:53 PM

New Healthymagination initiative enlists imaging, mobility and HIE in battle against breast cancer

NEW YORK – When you're one of the largest and most profitable companies in the world, you can afford to make big statements – pitting big money and big know-how against big problems.

That's just what GE is doing with a new multi-pronged, five-year, $1 billion initiative meant to speed breast cancer innovation, improving diagnostics and care for 10 million people worldwide.

"We envision a day when cancer is no longer a deadly disease," said Jeff Immelt, GE’s chairman and CEO. "When you add our cutting edge cancer detection technologies to the innovative ideas of our new partners, it's a powerful formula for tackling cancer and helping doctors and researchers improve care."

One of the centerpieces of the project is a $100 million open innovation challenge, launched in conjunction with several venture capital firms, to identify and bring to market ideas that advance diagnostics – especially for triple negative breast cancer – a more aggressive and less responsive form of the disease. Researchers and entrepreneurs are encouraged to devise new ways to map molecular structures of breast and other solid tumors, with an eye toward better diagnosis and more personalized therapies. (Submissions will be accepted through November 20.)

But on the health IT front, two of the more exciting areas of innovation have to do with imaging, mobile health and health information exchange.

One of the facets of the Healthymagination initiative is the development of a so-called "super database" that can consolidate clinical, pathology, therapy and outcomes data in one place. Currently in development alongside research, NGO and government organizations, the database will make use of cancer data from GE' subsidiary Clarient, its Medical Quality Improvement Consortium, the Premier healthcare alliance and the Department of Health & Human Services, all with an eye towards "fingerprinting" the different tumors in each individual patient.

"We think this is the right time," says Lisa Kennedy, Healthymagination's director of strategic marketing. "Given the sequencing of the human genome, I think we're on a big tipping point right now in oncology."

We'll learn more in the next five years about cancer than we've learned in "probably the last hundred," she says – and the way to help bring that about is to truly make use of vast and often underutilized stores of data. "We're now in the position where we have a lot more data then we really have the power to analyze. And every minute we're adding more and more. We think there is an opportunity to put everything in one place."

Within the secure database will be stored a patient's tests, their procedures, data on how long they've had the disease and how they've responded to particular treatments, the characterization of an individual tumor's fingerprint – all crucial info that can help identify the best treatment protocols for a vast array of patients.

"We spoke recently to 200 oncologists, radiologists and pathologists," says Kennedy, "and their number one need, when they look at a patient, is to be able to say, 'From my existing arsenal, what have I got that this patient is most likely to benefit from?'"

At the moment, Kennedy says GE has letters of intent for a number of entities who want to contribute to the database. She wouldn't name names, but did mention "cancer networks that have an astounding number of very specific pieces of data."

The best way to think of the mammoth project is "as an HIE for oncology," she says – something "which currently doesn't exist in the scope and the nature we need it to be."

As impressive as the size and scope – and the potential for advancement the super database represents – is the timeline for its development. "It's our goal to have this ready in six months," says Kennedy. "It's an ambitious goal. And that's why we've taken it on."

Other breakthroughs on the horizon for GE include a new imaging technique that should be available stateside in the near future and a new mobile mammography concept that could help bring lifesaving screenings to underserved areas around the world.

GE's new SenoBright application is a contrast enhanced spectral mammography (CESM) technology that can help enable more precise identification of breast cancer incidence for over a million women by 2020, officials say. Its imaging technique combines digital mammography with low-and high-level X-rays to better identify cancer – leading better selection of patients requiring biopsy.

Taking just seven to 10 minutes, "it can really help reduce the time between detection and diagnosis," says Anne LeGrand, senior vice president, healthcare at GE Healthcare. Aside from the obvious benefit to nervous patients, that can help eliminate unnecessary return visits and unneeded procedures – thus reducing costs. SenoBright is currently 510k clearance-pending at the FDA, and not yet available in the U.S., but it is installed in 17 care centers across Europe and Asia, officials say.

As SenoBright aims at improving diagnosis, another project, SenoCase, seeks to improve access. "Look at the ultrasound business," says LeGrand. "Ultrasound went from tiny, roll-around refrigerators to something that's the size of your laptop, or smaller."

So it is with SenoBright – still in the concept stage, with some "brilliant designers working on it" – which is envisioned as a "highly portable" mammography device, says LeGrand. The size of a suitcase, the concept could bring breast cancer screenings to millions of women, where they live, worldwide, according to GE.

In the mean time, the company is piloting a three-year partnership with Susan G. Komen for the Cure breast cancer technologies women in Wyoming, Saudi Arabia and China.

Through mobile mammography, digital appointment bookings and IT-enabled education, GE is committed to transforming the way care is delivered to these disparate underserved locations.

"We really feel it's something that needs to be done now," says Kennedy of this massive and multifaceted initiative. "GE is putting all our might behind this, to bring all our data together and combine it with whatwe're doing on our challenge to find molecular diagnostics and understand cancer pathways.”

"Cancer is at a real tipping point," she adds. "And we're looking to press the accelerator on innovation."

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