Precision medicine, also known as personalized medicine, has the potential to transform how we treat — or even cure — cancer and a host of other diseases such as cystic fibrosis, Parkinson’s, and Alzheimer’s.

The precision approach to patient care takes into account an individual’s genes, environments, and lifestyle to deliver the right treatment at the right time. Once seen as a futuristic approach, creating personalized, FDA-approved therapies is now a reality. According to an analysis by the Personalized Medicine Coalition, the Food and Drug Administration approved a record number of 19 personalized medicines in 2017, the fourth consecutive year that personalized medicines accounted for more than 20 percent of all new drug approvals.

Oncology currently leads the way in precision medicine advancements, but its forward progress is slowed by inefficiencies such as clinical trials that never reach completion due to lack of patients. This type of inefficiency can’t be solved by scientific enterprise alone; it requires novel business solutions.

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One of the big challenges to bringing more lifesaving precision medicine treatments to patients is that the vast networks of hospitals, foundations, and other organizations working toward new treatments and cures lack consensus on how to pursue their common goal. As a consequence, duplicative efforts and inefficiencies proliferate in this network. It will take a business mindset to overcome these obstacles.

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Getting down to business

We co-chair the Kraft Precision Medicine Accelerator at Harvard Business School. It aims to expedite the development and delivery of cancer treatments by improving the business processes that make them possible, such as direct-to-patient outreach and the aggregation and analysis of data. To improve these business processes, we need to approach them from a different perspective.

The accelerator uses “collective impact” to do this. Collective impact is a framework based on the idea that our society can address complex issues like cancer only when multiple, diverse stakeholders work together towards a shared goal. To the best of our knowledge, our work represents the first time collective impact has been used to accelerate innovation in precision medicine. So far, the progress has been promising.

Collective impact in action

Cancer patients are often overloaded with information and don’t know what steps to take in pursuing treatment. In fact, market research supported by the accelerator and published in The Cancer Journal identified consistent knowledge gaps among nearly 400 patients with five types of cancer. These knowledge gaps suggest that cancer patients need help sifting through the sea of information they face after receiving their diagnoses. These gaps include:

  • More than 60 percent of those surveyed did not personally select their physician for cancer treatment, but relied instead on referrals from primary care physicians or insurance companies.
  • More than 80 percent of respondents were unfamiliar with genomic testing.
  • More than 50 percent of respondents had never heard of the term “precision medicine.”

In other words, relatively few patients got to reap the benefit of a precision approach to treatment and likely underwent standard, one-size-fits-all cancer therapy.

In light of this research, the accelerator has been collaborating with five leading cancer organizations — the LUNGevity Foundation, the Metastatic Breast Cancer Alliance, the Multiple Myeloma Research Foundation, the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network, and the Prostate Cancer Foundation — to begin to close these knowledge gaps. Through this collaboration, the accelerator has begun piloting Right Track, a framework to help patients optimize their treatment journey by connecting them with patient-focused organizations.

These five cancer organizations agreed upon three steps — Right Team, Right Tests, and Right Treatments — to help newly diagnosed patients answer the big question: “What do I do now?” These steps help patients navigate their journeys toward proper diagnosis and treatment.

Bringing five cancer organizations with different missions together to agree upon a unified framework for reaching patients was no small feat. But thanks to collective impact, they were able to agree on a common goal of improving direct-to-patient engagement. And by working together, instead of in silos, they created a promising framework they may not have been able to develop on their own.

While conceptualizing the Right Track framework represented a step forward in directly engaging patients, we know that bringing it to life will also require a business mindset. That’s why we’re working with leaders from companies with proven expertise in engaging consumers, like Keurig, Reebok, Marriott, and Rent the Runway, to develop an effective strategy for engaging and educating patients about precision medicine and the need for more genetic testing.

This strategy includes developing an emotive brand, using more social media, and minimizing noise by reducing technical language. By leveraging the business expertise these companies have in creating relationships with consumers, we believe that our collaboration with them will help us accelerate innovation in precision medicine by allowing patients to better understand their treatment options.

What’s next?

To realize the promise of collective impact, precision medicine needs input and collaboration from all sectors involved in it. Nascent efforts at this are underway.

Take investors. They can be vital to securing the funding required to create and conduct the clinical trials needed to deliver promising new therapies for a wide range of diseases. JDRF’s T1D Fund, for example, is working to make high-impact, early-stage investments to accelerate commercial development of life-changing therapies for people living with type 1 diabetes. This unique philanthropic vehicle operates like a venture capital fund, as it focuses on commercial investments in companies developing new therapies.

We are working to extend input and collaboration through a new executive education program that convenes senior leaders from throughout the precision medicine community to learn new business models that will accelerate progress in precision medicine.

While the precision medicine community has made significant advancements in cancer treatment in recent years, it has plenty of work left to do — and must do it urgently. This year, cancer will kill more than 600,000 Americans and nearly 9 million people around the world. To accelerate lifesaving innovations, we must abandon silos, embrace the power of collective impact, and work to make curing cancer everyone’s business.

Richard G. Hamermesh and Kathy E. Giusti are faculty co-chairs of the Kraft Precision Medicine Accelerator and faculty co-chairs of the Harvard Business School Executive Education program Accelerating Innovation in Precision Medicine.

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