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Why Collaboration and Innovation Are Key to Improving Medical Research

3 minute read

Behind any landmark cure is years of medical research. But the old goal of research — to find a one-size-fits-all treatment for a disease, based on a set of standard protocols — must radically change to further and diversify advances in the field, experts argued at the TIME 100 Health Summit on Thursday.

Sean Parker, an entrepreneur and founder of the Parker Institute for Cancer Immunotherapy, came to the complex world of biotech, life sciences and health care research as an outsider. (Parker co-founded Napster and was the first president of Facebook.) “It seemed like there was tremendous opportunity. The field looked and felt a lot like the early Internet,” he explained at the summit.

“There was a lot of similarity in terms of enthusiasm and excitement and breakthroughs… and yet there were these inherent systemic obstacles that felt like they were slowing down progress,” Parker said. The cost of enrolling a patient in a clinical trial, for instance, can be “extraordinarily high,” and researchers focused on similar treatment goals often work separately from one another — without sharing data. The Parker Institute’s goal is to connect cancer doctors, share information among researchers and accelerate new treatments. Work at the Parker Institute has led to the first approved gene immunotherapy for blood cancers and Nobel Prize-winning immune-based cancer drugs.

“We’re all in it, at the end of the day, for our patients,” said Dr. Laura Esserman, professor of surgery at the University of California, San Francisco School of Medicine. “We want to get people to a better outcome.” In the field of breast cancer, for example, the same cancer screening and treatment guidelines have traditionally been applied across the board. But people have different genetic profiles and risk factors, necessitating a range of different approaches. “Breast cancer is many diseases,” Esserman said, and a treatment path for one patient may not be appropriate for another.

This precision-focused medicine approach is best achieved through collaboration, which is partly why the National Institutes of Health (NIH) is in the process of ensuring recipients of NIH grant funding must make their data accessible, said NIH director Dr. Francis Collins at the summit. “We can all learn from it.”

This approach is useful not only to discover how to treat people once they get sick, but also to understand how they remain well. “We have these one-size-fits-all approaches to how to stay healthy” — diet and exercise, for example — “and most people ignore them,” he said.

In the NIH’s “All of Us” trial, which is currently enrolling participants, researchers will follow 1 million Americans who are providing electronic health records, blood samples for DNA sequencing, and information from Fitbits and questionnaires. That rich trove of data will then be available to other researchers. “Imagine you have this as a platform to understand wellness,” Collins noted.

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Write to Mandy Oaklander at mandy.oaklander@time.com