Using Blockchain To Fight Cancer

By Casey Hynes


Beating cancer is one of the great challenges of our age. More than 1.7 million people will be diagnosed with cancer this year in the U.S. alone. Globally, the number of new cancer diagnoses annually will reach 23.6 million by 2030.

Now researchers, scientists, and doctors may have a new weapon: blockchain. Blockchain technology, which allows records to be stored on a decentralized ledger, can help bring additional accuracy and security to the fight against cancer.

Companies such as Camelot ITLab have begun developing blockchain platforms that can aid in cancer treatments. The Germany-based company founded the hypertrust Patient Data Care, and its hypertrust X-Chain solution is being used in CAR-T cell immunotherapy treatments. The hypertrust X-Chain solution uses blockchain technology to create an immutable audit trail and chain of custody for the patient’s data, and it verifies the identities of everyone involved in the procedure. The platform also uses sensors to track materials, further ensuring that they’re where they need to be and only in authorized hands. To be sure, the blockchain technology is not truly decentralized like Bitcoin’s, rather it is a private blockchain that is publicly verifiable, enabling all involved parties to verify one another’s authenticity.

The hypertrust X-Chain platform uses both blockchain and Camelot’s Trusted Computing Appliance, essentially a protected network area, to create a closed-loop supply chain. Because data protection regulations prohibit patient health data being added to the blockchain, the company stores private information off-chain on the computing appliance system. But every party involved in the cell therapy process has access to a blockchain node allowing them to ensure the integrity of the chain of custody.  

CAR-T cell immunotherapy treatments are used in some cases of lymphoma and leukemia and involve a complex process in which a patient’s T cells are removed, genetically modified in a lab so that they will produce a chimeric antigen receptor (CAR) protein, and then reimplanted in the patient. The goal is for the modified T cells to attack the cancer cells.

There are numerous steps involved in the treatment, including data documentation and storage. And given the precision that’s required for treatment to work, there is no room for error. “Each of the process steps of such a treatment...must be consistently and immutably documented and stored,” said Andreas Goebel, Technology Lead at hypertrust Patient Data Care. At each stage, vital information is passing from patient to referring doctor to treatment center to pharmaceutical company, among other key actors. Manual documentation workflows increase the risks that important data will fall through the cracks, which could be catastrophic for the patient.  

“It requires a safe and seamless interaction of multiple stakeholders in the overall process. That is why it can heavily benefit from the blockchain technology,” Goebel said.

Less Waste, More Solutions

Other companies and thought leaders are also exploring blockchain applications in cancer research and treatments. The platform collects mammogram and other types of breast imaging donated by patients, and it secures their personal information via blockchain. The participants are able to disallow access to their data if they so choose, giving them control over their privacy while also enabling researchers at the University of California, San Francisco to source the vast numbers of images needed to train artificial intelligence (AI) algorithms to spot breast cancer indicators.  

The ability to secure data and provide tamper-proof methods of gathering and storing confidential information could be blockchain’s greatest contribution to cancer research and treatments. But there are other potential uses, too. Charlie Caruso, head of global growth at MiVote and chief marketing officer for Soar.Earth, wrote earlier this year that blockchain could be used to improve cancer research funding processes.

She posits the idea of a “cancer coin” that would generate billions of dollars from donors, who would then be able to vote on where funding was directed. This method of funding could be extended to cancer charities as well, Caruso says. The idea would be to bring transparency to cancer charities and funding initiatives and reduce waste and bureaucracy.

Last year, IBM announced that it is partnering with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to research potential uses for blockchain in data management. Applicable areas could include electronic medical records, data collected from smartphones and wearables, and genome records.

Out from Crypto’s Shadow

Goebel said that at present, the public perception of blockchain technologies remains too narrow. “The biggest hurdle is the wrong perception of blockchain being associated with cryptocurrencies and speculation,” he said. “A significant amount of attention is currently directed towards the technology; however, many of these non-financial use cases are still in their infancy and poorly understood by potential adopters.”

He said he is not worried about adoption taking off, however, because blockchain is already proving its worth in areas outside cryptocurrency and finance. Goebel predicts that blockchain uses will become more prevalent in medicine, though it will remain out of sight for patients, since these applications will operate in the background.

Goebel readily acknowledged that “blockchain alone will not be the answer to safety and privacy.” Off-chain APIs and enterprise management systems are required as well, so blockchain is one valuable component in a vast and complex ecosystem.

But with the use of AI in analyzing images and detecting disease becoming more of a reality, data is becoming ever more integral to patient care. Data can help predict disease and guide doctors toward treatment specifically tailored to each patient’s circumstances. At a broader level, widespread data capture could lead researchers that much closer to, say, finding cures for common cancers.

Blockchain can play a significant role in supporting research and treatment processes while  ensuring the privacy of security of cancer-related data.

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