Houston Surgeon Says Internet Could Empower Cancer Patients

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Rafael Lugo, MD Responds Research from the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute That States Technology Give Patients Power Over Treatment

New reports reveal treating cancer could be just a click away. It all comes down to two web-based cancer initiatives that show the internet has the potential to give patients more power over the research and treatment of their diseases.

Researchers believe it empowers patients and helps them track their symptoms in a more calculated ways.
In fact, French researchers say in one study, advanced lung- cancer patients who submitted weekly reports of their symptoms to doctors via a smartphone app lived substantially longer than those who had their disease checked in the normal way with a CT scan every 12 weeks or 24 weeks. After one year, 75% of patients using the app were alive compared with 49% of those who had standard doctor visits.

“It is not a surprise that patients that communicate with their doctors more frequently fair better. This helps in getting therapies and other medications better integrated, making the treatments more effective and less toxic. From the research standpoint this is a tremendous tool to help understand on a real time basis how the body is reacting,” Dr. Lugo said.

Researchers at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute and the Broad Institute at Harvard University and Massachusetts Institute of Technology say more than 2000 women and men are providing medical records, tumor tissue and saliva samples to the big-data study. The hope is it will speed the development of more effective treatments for those with advanced disease.

Metastatic breast cancer—also known as stage 4 breast cancer, when the disease has traveled to other parts of the body—causes nearly 100% of breast-cancer deaths, but only about 7% of research dollars are dedicated to this stage of the disease.

“Educating the patients about their condition and communicating more frequently and effectively helps guide therapy more effectively and use a laser type approach. This, in turn, will help stop disease processes like cancer more effectively and also hopefully prevent reoccurrence or catch them early,” he said.

Reports on both studies were presented Monday at the meeting of the American Society of Clinical Oncology in Chicago. The news comes amid surging interest in patient-driven research facilitated by social-media technology and such data-gathering tools as Fitbit step-trackers and wearable sensors.

Apple Inc.’s ResearchKit, released last year, for instance, has spawned smartphone-enabled clinical trials in a variety of diseases, reflecting the belief that real-time data reported by or gathered from the patient hold important but often missed clues about what drives health or disease and how the body responds to or resists treatment.

In the French study, 133 patients from five cancer centers in France were randomized to either reporting symptoms weekly with the app or the standard CT scan every three months. The app participants recorded their status on 12 symptoms including fatigue, pain, cough frequency and weight loss.
An algorithm in the app analyzes the responses and sends an alert to the doctor if it senses a likely relapse. That prompts a call to the patient to come in for a checkup and possible changes in care.

Dr. Lugo says, “For a doctor, either in research or in clinical practice, information and data about a patient’s well being and symptoms, or psychological responses, is invaluable. In order to personalize and improve the efficiency of treatments, we need to get as much feedback as possible from the individual. Instead of the shot gun approach, it will be much more personalized to the individual needs and their genetic make up. This is all very exciting and promising.”

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christine haas

Rafael Lugo