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How Technology Is Helping Fight Cancer With Matthew Ong


In this episode of the Real World Talk podcast, Kevin Keogh talks to Matthew Ong, the Associate Editor at The Cancer Letter.

With over eight years of experience in writing investigative and enterprise stories about oncology, cancer informatics, drug development, and medical devices, Matt has a direct insight into the industry and works alongside some of the smartest people in the field.

Kevin and Matt discuss rapid tech advancements in oncology and how informatics and real-world evidence are shaping the industry. According to Matt, as long as we’re careful about over-promising and we recognize the need for data sharing, technology will continue to help us deliver astonishing results.

President Joe Biden’s recent $6.5 billion proposal to create a new, cancer-focused health agency within the National Institutes of Health presents an opportunity to accelerate the development of a comprehensive data federation for cancer, Matt said. ARPA-H, or Advanced Research Projects Agency-Health, is expected to complement the National Cancer Institute’s mission by funding more challenging, innovative initiatives that traditionally wouldn’t be taken on through basic research grants or by a biotech startup.

Lack of diversity in clinical trial data is another challenge left to tackle—Matt shares some real-life examples of how lack of diversity in trial samples results in faulty findings.

Matt’s predictions for the future are optimistic, and we’re looking forward to more groundbreaking developments in the fight against cancer.


[00:07] Introduction — The host Kevin Keogh introduces Matthew Ong, an award-winning investigative journalist, health policy writer, and the Associate Editor at The Cancer Letter.

[02:56] Weekly challenges at The Cancer Letter — The Cancer Letter is an innovative and informative medical resource. Putting the publication together every week requires hard work and dedication. According to Matt, the most significant challenge is putting out breaking news stories with the same depth and granularity readers have come to expect from the weekly issues.

[07:07] Cutting-edge technology shapes the medical world — Matt shares some key tech advancements, one of them being imaging and AI. Algorithms are getting considerably better at diagnosing tumors. They may already be capable of systematically predicting our RNA seek profiles from whole slide images of cancer cells.

[11:17] The need for collaboration and data sharing within the industry — To prevent past mistakes from happening again, it needs to be a more rigorous annotation and curation of data repositories. “Cancer informatics isn’t something we can do anymore on an island,” says Matt.

[14:38] Democratization of cancer research and cancer informatics — Matt talks about some recent key events that set the stage for democratization and the creation of data standards.

[18:23] Lack of diversity in AI — Technology has significantly advanced the medical field, but at the same time, there is a large technology divide in some cases. Matt provides some real-life examples of how lack of diversity can affect clinical trial data.

[22:55] Predictions for the future — Looking back at previous cancer initiatives, Matt says that Biden has done a lot for the Cancer Moonshot. That’s why there are high expectations of his administration to go beyond that in the next couple of years.

[25:43] The CCDI project — CCDI is a pilot project aiming to improve outcomes for children with cancer. “Pediatric oncology is considered to be the perfect setting for that. Because not only is there an unmet need for well-curated data repositories for childhood cancer, it’s also one area where you’ve got smaller sample sizes that can serve as test cases.”

[27:31] Friends of Cancer Research groundbreaking project — There’s so much going on in cancer research. One of the projects The Cancer Letter covers is the pilot project that Friends of Cancer Research conducts on real-world endpoints.

[29:34] FDA proactive work — Matt says that he’s heard nothing but good things about the FDA’s contributions to cancer informatics during his time in The Cancer Letter. “Personally, I’m invested in following their ongoing work. Perhaps specifically on the utility of clinical decision support, software, and systems.”

[30:59] Matt is optimistic about tech advances — Matt says he’s looking forward to all exciting developments for the future of oncology.

Key Points

  • Technology is making a difference in oncology. Matt has a good outlook of the industry as a whole and a front-row panoramic view of rapid developments. According to him, the technological development is impressive. “I recently had a very interesting conversation with a company in Paris about how artificial intelligence may already be capable of systematically predicting our RNA seek profiles from whole slide images of cancer cells, speaking of the molecular approach to cancer management. What does something like that mean? It means that we’re at a point where maybe an oncologist not too far in the future might be able to pull up a slide of a tumor biopsy on a screen, and without having to order a biomarker test, see the molecular characteristics of cancer. So I think that’s really cutting edge.”
  • The lack of diversity in AI impacts all. The benefits of technological development are indisputable. Nevertheless, one question arises. How can we ensure that big data is not only making advances but also addressing issues of equity? Matt says there is a lack of representation and diversity in trial samples, potentially leading to limited research findings and access to cancer care. “To wrap up my point about clinical trial enrollment, I think that’s one area in which cancer informatics and especially clinical trial matching tools can play an outsize role by connecting traditionally underrepresented communities to trials that are changing our standards of care on an almost weekly basis.”
  • Predictions for the future. When asked about his predictions for the next two years in cancer research, Matt said there are high expectations for the Biden administration due to Biden’s contribution to the Cancer Moonshot in 2016. Many people in oncology are expecting Joe Biden to act on health inequities and cancer disparities. “Most of us have been pleasantly surprised by the immediacy with which they are engaging the field and delivering on expectations already.”