Photonics and the Cancer Moonshot Initiative: Partnership Highlights Role of Technology and IT Infrastructure in Reaching Goals



Photonics—the science of light—may not be associated with cancer in most people’s minds. But photonic technologies are: CT (computed tomography) scans and digital x-rays, for instance, are in everyday use, and next-generation oncology applications are in development.

As the White House’s National Cancer Moonshot Initiative moves toward its goal of achieving a decade’s worth of progress in the next 5 years, imaging technologies will be vital, from early detection and diagnosis to treatment and recurrence monitoring, according to experts. “Technology will play an absolutely essential role,” continued Thomas Baer, PhD, Executive Director of the Stanford Photonics Research Center and Chair of the National Photonics Initative’s (NPI’s) Cancer Moonshot Task Force. The NPI is one of the Moonshot Initiative’s designated private-sector partners.

Described in a statement from the White House, the NPI’s goal as a Moonshot partner is “to coordinate new, high-level public and private collaborations to develop a cancer technology roadmap that identifies the most promising existing and new technologies for increased and concerted private and public investment that will accelerate the early detection of cancer, saving lives and improving the quality of health care within the next 5 years.”

White Paper From NPI

A collaborative alliance among industry, academia, and government, the NPI is bringing together the scientific community, the medical technology industry, hospitals, and patient advocacy groups to leverage more than $3 billion in annual private investments. At a webinar following the Moonshot Summit in June 2016, the NPI presented a white paper and technology roadmap for the next 5 years.


The good news is our country can make significant strides within the next 5 years by effectively utilizing existing technologies and leveraging new investments to stimulate development of low-cost, precise, early detection technologies, and treatment protocols.…
— Thomas Baer, PhD

The white paper, A Brighter Future: Achieving the Goals of the Cancer Moonshot Through Adoption of New and Enhanced Technologies and a Transformed IT Health System, makes three major recommendations: (1) expand funding for clinical studies over the next 5 years, employing existing noninvasive and minimally invasive imaging technologies and companion molecular tests for early detection of cancer; (2) use coordinated public and private investments to expand funding for the development of new noninvasive quantitative imaging approaches for early detection and guided treatment of cancer where these technologies are needed; and (3) provide the resources to develop a network for an IT medical infrastructure available to U.S. health-care providers and consumers.

“The good news,” Dr. Baer said in a statement posted on the NPI website, “is our country can make significant strides within the next 5 years by effectively utilizing existing technologies and leveraging new investments to stimulate development of low-cost, precise, early detection technologies, and treatment protocols.…”

Data and IT Infrastructure

Along with imaging technologies, the role of data and IT infrastructure was a recurring theme at the webinar. Existing data centers and the interconnection bandwidths already provide an infrastructure to support a dramatic increase in data-sharing and data-analysis capabilities, according to the NPI white paper. What’s missing is a national program to organize and support the health IT infrastructure. The Moonshot could create such a program, according to the white paper, aimed at developing common database structures, user interfaces for existing electronic medical records, and much more.

James Mulshine, MD, of Rush University Medical Center, speaking at the webinar, stressed the need to harness massive amounts of data. In low-dose spiral CT lung cancer screening, for instance, now recommended yearly for high-risk groups, it is important to store and distribute full imaging data sets from screening visits so changes in nodule size over time can be accurately measured.

James Mulshine, MD

James Mulshine, MD

A national, cloud-based infrastructure could ensure consistent quality and universal access, not only for quantitative imaging but for other emerging precision medicine tools, explained Dr. Mulshine. Such a database would serve as a complementary portal to existing electronic health records “to rapidly enable 21st-century cancer care for all Americans in a feasible, effective, economical, and flexible approach.”

Lauren Leiman, Senior Director for External Partnerships for the Moonshot, also spoke about the importance of “big data” in achieving the Moonshot’s goals. Together with technology, she said, it will play a huge role. ■

Disclosure: Drs. Baer and Mulshine reported no potential conflicts of interest.



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