Conference Coverage

NCI director: Data failures cost lives



– A couple years ago, hematologist-oncologist Norman E. “Ned” Sharpless, MD, was gobsmacked by a groundbreaking study into treatments for acute myeloid leukemia. While the findings offered valuable new insight into the best drug options, they left Dr. Sharpless quaking, and not with delight. “I can recall that my knees buckled,” he said.

Dr. Norman E. "Ned" Sharpless, director of the National Cancer Institute Courtesy University of North Carolina

Dr. Norman E. Sharpless

Why? Because the findings, he told colleagues at the annual meeting of the American Society of Hematology, came too late for many patients to benefit. “One could say that’s great news, this is medical progress,” he said. “But I saw this as a clear failure of data aggregation.”

Now, Dr. Sharpless is in a position to do more than fume and speak out. He became the director of the National Cancer Institute in 2017 and he’s made “big data” one of his four priorities for the NCI under his leadership.

“While data security is crucial, there are also costs to not aggregating data and sharing it,” he said. “It means giving patients the wrong drug, it means patients having to die.”

While Dr. Sharpless said he’s disappointed by the progress on data in medicine, he had praise to offer, too. In conversations over his first year-plus on the job, he said, he’s learned that “it’s a great time to be a cancer scientist and a cancer doctor in the United States. ... It’s undeniably a great time to be a blood doctor or blood scientist. We’re making progress at a rate that is faster and greater than at any point in my career as an oncologist. Just look at all the new stuff we’ve got!”

In hematology, great strides are being made in areas such as the treatment of leukemia and lymphoma, he said. Progress is also boosting treatment in areas such as melanoma and lung, breast, ovarian, and head and neck cancer.

“Some of you will correctly point out that this progress is not enough. In some cases, treatments are moderately effective and not curative. These are singles or even doubles, but we still need home runs. We still have too many patients dying of cancer, including blood cancer,” he said. “From my perspective, it’s important to be very clear-eyed. While we have a long way to go to end suffering in all patients, we have to be willing to admit that progress has been impressive.”

Dr. Sharpless touted the Cancer Moonshot, which will allocate $1.8 billion in federal funds for cancer research over 7 years. And he mentioned his four priority areas at NCI: Workforce development, basic science, big data, and clinical trials. Initiatives in these areas include prioritization of research by early-career investigators and increased funding for trials, he said.

As for data, he said, “I’ve been trying to explain to congressional leaders why getting control of our data is important.”

Dr. Sharpless likes to point to his own encounter in his kitchen in 2016 – the one that buckled his knees – with an issue of the New England Journal of Medicine. There he found a study that examined molecular determinants of response to decitabine in acute myeloid leukemia and myelodysplastic syndromes (N Engl J Med. 2016 Nov 24;375[21]:2023-36).

“I can still close my eyes now and literally see the faces of patients whom I gave ... a very toxic regimen, some of whom had very bad outcomes,” he said. “I know in retrospect, based on certain statistics, I probably used the wrong drug in some of these patients. If we’d been aggregating data in a deliberate way, from the get-go of AML, a result like this would have fallen out immediately. I’m concerned we’re still making these types of mistakes for other cancer subtypes today.”

Moving forward, he said, the goal is “to create large, multimodal data sets ... And put them in the cloud and make them available to the research community in the most useful format possible, in a way that’s safe and secure. We have to do these things because the costs of not harnessing data are too great.”

Dr. Sharpless reported several past financial relationships with G1 Therapeutics, Healthspan Diagnostics, and Unity Biotechnology.

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