Company uses AWS, genomics and machine learning to develop a blood test for early cancer detection

Hospitals and businesses use cloud computing, machine learning and voice-controlled devices to personalize healthcare for patients.

Cloud computing concept

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Personalizing healthcare requires the power of cloud computing whether the challenge is screening for cancer, reducing the paperwork load for doctors or making decisions about care, according to speakers at the AWS Healthcare and Life Sciences Virtual Symposium.

Wilson To, the worldwide head of healthcare at AWS, hosted the event at the end of May. To and four guests discussed how cloud services can improve information management to personalize healthcare.

Josh Ofman, chief medical officer for Grail, said that his company is using cloud computing to detect cancer at earlier stages when it is easier to treat. The Galleri test uses a blood test to screen for multiple cancers at once. 

Ofman said that genomics and machine learning are the foundation of the new early detection test. The test looks for epigenetic changes in a person's DNA that can be a warning sign for mutations caused by cancer.

According to the company, the test has a false positive rate of less than 0.5% and a positive predictive value of 44%.

Grail recommends the Galleri test for people 50 and older who are at a higher risk of cancer. The company also suggests that the test be used in addition to other screenings, not as a replacement for existing procedures. The company claims that the test can identify more than 50 types of cancer ranging from Hodgkin and non-Hodgkin lymphoma, melanoma and soft tissue sarcoma.

Grail started working with AWS in 2017 to ingest and analyze hundreds of thousands of records and genomic datasets. Grail migrated its core processing and analytical infrastructure from on-premises to a cloud platform at that time. Grail uses storage, compute and network services from AWS.

"This collaboration is powering our growth and will enable us to get to scale," Ofman said.

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Ofman said the company's data set will grow by orders of magnitude as researchers process all the samples they have today.

"It will enable us to continue to refine our test and develop new products in new disease areas," he said.

According to the National Cancer Institute, the most common cancers in men are prostate, lung and colorectal cancers, which make up about 43% of cancers diagnosed in men in 2020. For women, the types that represented 50% of all cancer diagnoses in 2020 were breast, lung and colorectal. 

The retail cost of the test is $949. According to the company, the test is not covered by insurance.

Building high touch and high tech patient experiences

Three other AWS customers spoke at the event, including Biogen, Cambia Health Solutions and Houston Methodist Hospital. Laurent Rotival, chief information officer and senior vice president at Cambia Health Solutions, said his company uses AWS to bring together data streams from disparate sources to create a coherent experience for customers.

Alisha Alaimo, president of Biogen's U.S. organization, explained how the company worked with Us Against Alzheimer's to develop a screening test. The idea was to make the test feel more personalized and less intimidating. 

The brain health test can be taken by an individual with concerns for herself, or by a caregiver who is worried about a loved one. The screening is at Mybrainguide.org and is anonymous and available in English and Spanish.

Roberta Schwartz, chief innovation officer and executive vice president of Houston Methodist Hospital, described the health system's work with Alexa and voice commands to improve patient care. Schwartz also sees a need for more personalized healthcare services, a trend that the pandemic intensified. The hospital system used these guidelines to revamp the patient experience: Help me now, make it easy and remember me.

Another goal of the project was to let doctors have more face time than screen time when working with patients. 

The hospital has Amazon Echos in every room and Schwartz said she has seen a new level of acceptance of the devices among patients and doctors.

"The devices were essential when patients couldn't have visitors," she said. "We are planning to hook our Alexas up to the nurse call system as well."

The hospital also plans to use the devices to reduce the time doctors have to spend transcribing patient information and to make it easier to pull up relevant information during a patient consultation.

During a 34-week pilot program, the hospital deployed 1,200 devices in its facilities and saw more than 600 daily interactions with Alexa and Avia, a virtual health assistant. Requests for music were the most popular request at 75% followed by knowledge searches, socializing, inquiries about the weather and general communication. 

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By Veronica Combs

Veronica Combs is a senior writer at TechRepublic. For more than 10 years, she has covered technology, healthcare, and business strategy. In addition to her writing and editing expertise, she has managed small and large teams at startups and establis...