As national initiatives to improve precision medicine and accelerate cancer research unfold, a new collaboration between the Defense Department and biopharmaceutical company Berg aims to deepen knowledge of and spur research into tailored therapies for breast cancer.
The cooperative research and development agreement announced Monday will give Berg access to a trove of the Defense Department's tissue samples from breast cancer patients. It can analyze the tissue to identify biological markers that help predict responses to conventional cancer treatments and also use data it generates to develop new therapies.
“The tissue samples and the clinical information that's associated with this collaboration, I would argue, are to be found nowhere else in the world,” said Niven Narain, Berg's co-founder, president and CEO.
The collaboration, which includes partners of the Defense Department's Clinical Breast Care Project, is independent of Vice President Joe Biden's Cancer Moonshot initiative, which aims to double the pace of cancer research, and the Obama administration's Precision Medicine Initiative to drive research into which therapies work for which patients.
Still, according to Narain, the partnership's goals align with the broader vision of these initiatives, both of which are relatively new. President Barack Obama announced the Precision Medicine Initiative with an initial investment of $215 million in January 2015. A year later he launched the Cancer Moonshot to carry out a decade's worth of cancer research in five years.
“We have to stop treating folks with a one-size-fits-all solution,” Narain said, referring to the need for precision medicine. “It doesn't work.”
To analyze those tissue samples, Berg plugs genomic and clinical data into its artificial intelligence platform, which then can build different models of healthy and diseased tissue. It can scan the two for biological differences that could aid in discovering biological markers, or biomarkers.
Precision medicine relies on biomarkers, as they can help indicate whether a therapy will work for a specific patient and spur the development of new, targeted drugs.
In 2013, the Defense Department and Berg began collaborating on prostate cancer research. Berg gained access to 24,000 tissue samples from the department's Center for Prostate Disease Research that were collected over 25 to 30 years, said retired U.S. Army Maj. Gen. Elder Granger, who worked in health affairs at the Defense Department and is now on Berg's board.
Using those samples, Berg has been able to discover and validate several biomarkers that can distinguish between non-cancerous and cancerous enlarged prostates, as well as more and less aggressive forms of cancer, Narain said.
In its collaboration on breast cancer research, Berg, which Granger said has the most advanced AI capabilities in healthcare, will have access to 13,609 tissue samples gathered from 7,878 patients. It will examine several subtypes of breast cancer and prioritize particularly aggressive, poorly understood and tough-to-treat varieties such as triple negative breast cancer, Narain said.
The tissue samples from the Defense Department are particularly useful for generating information because they come from military members and their families, which Granger described as a highly diverse population. “From a cancer perspective, the Department of Defense and our military is just a microcosm of what we see in our commercial population,” he added.