The “C” word—cancer—is pretty scary. It can crop up in many forms, throwing our lives or those of our loved ones into serious chaos with little to no warning. One of the main methods of detecting and treating cancer in its early stages, before it becomes more dangerous and difficult to treat, is the good old-fashioned—and often painful—biopsy. But today, we can fight back with new innovations in health care IT.
The new kid on the block that will revolutionize how we spot cancer and stop it in its tracks is the liquid biopsy. Learn how this tech works—and how you can prepare for its arrival.
Liquid biopses are revolutionizing early cancer detection
What is a liquid biopsy? It sounds futuristic, like one of those sleek, high-tech disease-screening tools you might see in sci-fi films, like Gattaca or Equals, but the concept is straightforward: When cancer begins developing, cancer cells quietly shed fragments of their DNA into a person’s blood. By sequencing the DNA in a few drops of that blood, doctors can identify cancer before it develops into a full-blown, life-threatening situation.
With the benefit of early detection, medical professionals have a much greater chance of beating it back than they would later on, only after it had developed into a tumour or, worse, metastasized throughout the body. But its benefits don’t end there: Liquid biopsies offer doctors an alternative—a less invasive method when a tissue-based biopsy is not an option, for starters.
According to MIT Technology Review, a liquid biopsy can also help a doctor pick the right drug to prescribe based on the specific DNA mutation propelling the cancer forward. In other words, this health care innovation may improve not only our methods of catching cancer before it comes a threat, but it may also help health care professionals improve the way they treat cancer once it has manifested.
Understand gene sequencing—the tech behind the liquid biopsy
To perform a liquid biopsy, a doctor needs a gene-sequencing machine that can quickly decode millions of DNA fragments flowing through a patient’s bloodstream. Using that gadget, they can compare bits of rogue DNA—specifically, circulating-tumour DNA or ctDNA—with the human genome, identifying anomalies that point to the presence of cancer. From there, the doctor can identify the type of cancer that’s developed and create a treatment plan based on what they’ve learned from the DNA analysis.
Traditional DNA sequencers are pretty cost-prohibitive and bulky, which means you probably won’t be seeing one of them at your local doctor’s office anytime soon. But next-generation sequencing solutions, some of which are incredibly mobile and no larger than a phone, could lower the cost of cancer screening so much that it becomes routine—that is, if researchers can successfully develop tests that spot each of the most common cancers.
Investors are pouring resources into this tech, anticipating that they may hit pay dirt soon. According to a recent report from Research and Markets, the next-generation sequencing market could reach approximately CAD$16 billion by 2022, experiencing a compound annual growth rate of 20.5 percent along the way. If these cancer-screening tests end up becoming more cost-effective and as commonly available as hoped, health care IT departments will need to figure out how to support them.
Learn how health care IT pros can prepare
IT leaders in health care will need to plan for the costs of purchasing and implementing the gene-sequencing equipment used to perform a liquid biopsy. While the devices are expensive now, hopefully costs will dip below the thousand dollar price point soon, like other screening devices in recent years.
Health care IT departments will also need to plan for training—both pre- and post-implementation—since it’ll be the first time using this equipment for many medical professionals. And it goes without saying: Health care IT pros must plan for the regular maintenance and care of this new technology.
Security is a huge issue for any health care organization these days, so IT departments should pay close attention to the cybersecurity of any gene sequencers they bring aboard. If the sequencers connect to the internet, like IoT devices, then you’ll want to check out any potential IoT cybersecurity concerns.
Insider threats and even outright theft are a potential issue with small, mobile equipment, so make sure you factor that in, too. Operational security is important—doctors should be trained to handle the equipment, so it preserves the privacy of their patients’ personal health information (after all, it doesn’t get more personal than your DNA).
Even though IT pros find technological breakthroughs exciting, they know adopting new technology can put a strain on an organization. This is especially true if the firm is already navigating a lot of change and needs to adapt to a rapidly evolving technological landscape with a limited budget and new regulations. But that’s the life of a health care IT professional: stealth superhero, always going the extra mile to improve health care delivery. Fortunately, it looks like they’ll soon have a new superpower to use in fighting the good fight: liquid biopsies.