John Pientka

Meet GRAIL – Fighting Cancer with Big Data, AI and the Cloud

Improve Your Chances of Surviving Cancer by 5X to 10X

How would you like to improve your odds of surviving cancer by 5X to 10X? Guess who’s going to help you do that? Amazon is, through a young company called GRAIL. Confused? Actually, you’ll see it all makes sense.

Ever hear of circulating tumor DNA (ctDNA)? How about liquid biopsy? It turns out that way before you show any symptoms of cancer, snippets of a tumor’s DNA is floating around your blood stream. If you could detect these tiny traces from a simple blood test (a liquid biopsy) you would have an early warning of a potential problem. And what if you could do it for $1000 or less?

Sounds like a good idea? You bet it is. Sadly, it turns out that most cancers arise from random mutations in copying genes: basically bad luck. But there is hope. Detecting cancer at an early stage is vital to successful treatment. Today, unfortunately, most cancers are detected in later stages when the odds diminish dramatically.

While the concept is straightforward the execution is tough. “Cancer is an incredibly complex and heterogeneous disease, making accurate, early stage detection extremely difficult,” according to Brian Druker, M.D. a noted cancer researcher. “The oncology field needs the expertise and resources to build the technology infrastructure to collect, analyze, categorize and use vast amounts of data.

Enter GRAIL (https://grail.com), a life sciences company with a mission to detect cancer early when it can be cured. GRAIL combines the power of high-intensity sequencing (ultra-broad and ultra-deep sequencing), leading-edge computer science, and large population-scale clinical studies to enhance the scientific understanding of cancer biology and develop a blood test for early-stage cancer detection.

Amazon recently participated in a $900 Million funding round for this company founded in January of 2016. It wasn’t the only one. A number of the big pharmaceutical guys like Johnson & Jonson and Merck were also investors. It’s easy enough to understand the pharma guys but why Amazon?

Take a look at some of the needed technology and data mentioned earlier:

  • Build the technology infrastructure to collect, analyze, categorize and use vast amounts of data
  • Leading-edge computer science
  • Large population-scale clinical studies

This is a needle in the haystack challenge. You need to sample a significant amount of the population to learn what genomic snippets in the blood are flags for early onset cancer. The way to climb that mountain is to bring vast amounts of computing power and artificial intelligence coupled to the big data resulting from extremely powerful gene sequencing across huge population studies.

Where do you get that kind of horsepower at a reasonable cost – only in the cloud. And who is the biggest baddest cloud provider on the planet – Amazon, through its Amazon Web Services (AWS) with ten times the capacity of its next fourteen competitors combined.

Now you see why Amazon has made this play. Not only does it have the computational muscle to achieve GRAIL’s goals, it clearly has indicated that Artificial Intelligence (A.I.) is part of its own evolving strategy. From the speech recognition A.I. in Alexa, in the wildly successful Amazon Echo, to the A.I. tools you can get through AWS, Amazon is betting big on coupling big data, the cloud and A.I. It even uses A.I. internally to run its warehouses and plan the expansion of AWS’s vast cloud computing facilities.

Only through the cloud and the digitization of genomic medicine could something like GRAIL be possible. After years of playing with it, all of pharma and healthcare are moving big time into the cloud. And here is the really good news for all of us. GRAIL plans to have the test available by 2019!

By John Pientka

John Pientka

John is currently the principal of Pientka and Associates which specializes in IT and Cloud Computing.

Over the years John has been vice president at CGI Federal, where he lead their cloud computing division. He founded and served as CEO of GigEpath, which provided communication solutions to major corporations. He has also served as president of British Telecom’s outsourcing arm Syncordia, vice president and general manager of a division at Motorola.

John has earned his M.B.A. from Harvard University as well as a bachelor’s degree from the State University in Buffalo, New York.

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