The medical field is constantly changing, evolving and becoming more comprehensive and nowhere is this more evident than in the field of cancer research and oncology. It was recently announced that Google is in the process of copying human genome sets into a cloud storage system for use on their own server farms. The project is being called Google Genomics and the idea is that with the ability to compare genomes by the thousands scientists and healthcare professionals will be better equipped to treat patients in a more personalized way. The Google Genomics project however, is still very new and in it’s earliest stages fairly far away from having millions of genomes at their fingertips. But not all companies are as new to the personalized care game as Google is. Definiens, based in both Munich, Germany and Carlsbad, California, is pioneering the field of tissue imaging and phenomics for use in the fight against cancer as well as the ongoing goal to treat patients and not just diseases.
Definiens was founded in 1994 by Professor Gerd Binnig who also won the 1986 Nobel Prize in physics for inventing the scanning tunneling microscope and was considered the father of tissue phenomics. Yesterday zoomdune.com had the privilege of talking with Definiens’ Chief Commercial Officer, Merrilyn Datta about how projects like Google Genomics and companies like Definiens are on the verge of changing the medical world as we know it.
Merrilyn Datta: Do you want me to start by giving you a little overview of Definiens?
zoomdune.com: Yes, please!
Merrilyn Datta: Okay! At Definiens we are focused on tissue diagnostic development and we primarily use an approach called tissue phenomics to work with big pharma on looking for companion diagnostics. What tissue phenomics does is sort of analogous to genomics in that we’re able to take all of the data out of tissue images and then we’re able to correlate it to clinical outcomes and be able to say “If you see ‘X’ in a tissue image then you’re very likely to see ‘Y’ as a clinical outcome.” or “A patient is very likely to be in a class of people that might respond well to a certain therapeutic.” So it’s very analogous to genomics in that genomics helps us understand better ways to personalize patient care. We do the same thing but with tissue image and features in a way that works a lot like the human mind through cognition network technology.
zoomdune.com: Definiens works primarily in oncology where chemotherapy and radiation are really the go-to treatment for patients even though chemotherapies and radiation therapies are extremely harsh treatments. Are you guys hoping to maybe phaseout chemotherapy and radiation as the general cancer treatment options?
Merrilyn Datta: We’re very hopeful that combinatorial therapy will be the way the world goes but one kind of really exciting places that we’re going right now is a lot of the thought leaders in oncology believe that immunotherapy is going to change a lot. The idea that a robust immune response to the tumor is going to be a big part of fighting cancer in the future. So we are actually working with the biggest thought leaders in immunotherapy to really figure out how we can understand the immune response to cancer in the body. I was just at a meeting called The Society for Immunotherapy in Cancer and pretty much everybody in oncology was there, all the Big Pharma, all the academic medical centers and they’re really standing behind immunotherapy. Dr. Jerome Galon for example created a test called the immuno-score where he looks at the tumor and the immune response and he’s able to predicatively and prognostically tell which patients are likely to be long term survivors regardless of the stage of their cancer. So there’s a lot of really cutting-edge things happening and immunotherapy is really the sweet spot because it looks at both the tumor and the tumor’s environment.
zoomdune.com: That’s really amazing, especially with cancer because you can get it anywhere in the body and where a tumor is really effects a patients prognosis. Do you notice that you have better luck clinically and prognostically with different kinds of tissues? Like better luck with bone tissue imaging as opposed to skin tissue imaging or something like that?
Merrilyn Datta: That is a great question, to me what we are great at is taking an image and quantifying markers and features. We hope to form a partnership between a patient in therapy and their clinician to give them what they really need to recognize patterns in bone cancers versus patterns present in muscular cancers. That way there are more options for physicians to decide how they want to proceed with treatment. Because cancer changes depending on where it is in the body. At the end of the day you’re always going to have to look at the physical manifestation of the cancer or the tumor to be able to stage it and understand it.
zoomdune.com: These kinds of developments are always so refreshing because it seems like advancing cancer care always goes in the direction of harsher drugs and harsher, more aggressive treatments. Whereas, tissue imaging, genomics and immunotherapy in oncology are more centered and focus on the tumor location as opposed to the whole body which is where we are now with chemotherapies and radiation therapies. So many cancer survivors are left dealing with the after effects of harmful cancer treatments even after years of remission. So it’s great to see that oncology and companies like Definiens are moving towards treating the patients a little more than treating just the cancer.
Merrilyn Datta: Yeah, it’s still early days for tissue imaging and immunotherapy in oncology and we’re very confident that these new discoveries with genomics being transferred over to tissue phenomics are going to really move the field forward. There are very few options in cancer treatment currently and they can be very harsh on the patient. So anything we can do to tailor treatment and make it more effective on a patient by patient basis is going to be fantastic. We’re very excited about our role in it and it’s going to take everyone sort of partnering together to move oncology forward.
zoomdune.com: And a project like Google Genomics, how would something that monumental move a company like yours forward? How would having so much genomic data help tissue research?
Merrilyn Datta: One thing that’s really important when you’re looking at big data, particularly in genomics where there’s a lot of steps to go from having a certain gene or certain mutation to the translation of proteins and eventually the cancer. The more data you have the more robustly you can draw conclusions. So ultimately what we want to do is make concrete prognosis and treatment plans based on data from thousands of cases instead of just a small handful. Access to data and collaboration across big data is really what drives people to have robust conclusions and figure out what should be the next scientific questions to ask. Ultimately for the tailored medicine approach, genomics is undoubtedly going to play a huge role and what we’re really starting to think about is how do we partner with genomics on the tissue phenomics side to accelerate tailored medicine and personalized medicine even faster. For me personally I’ve been in the genomics space and now I’m in the tissue space and when I think about people calling this the Century of Biology, there’s going to be a huge impact on healthcare and cancer care.
zoomdune.com: That’s so amazing and so inspiring to hear and I want to thank you for all the work that you and your company do for cancer patients and survivors. Thank you so much for taking this time to talk with me today. I can’t imagine how busy you must be especially after that meeting.
Merrilyn Datta: No, no! I really enjoyed talking with you as well! Thank you.