The Economist: Helping everyone to WIN

Posted: Thursday, November 10, 2011

The Economist Intelligence Unit: Helping Everyone to WIN (Case Study 3):

It has long been clear that, rather than a single disease, cancer is actually a family of similarly symptomatic diseases caused by different genetic mutations. Accordingly, a growing number of treatments have appeared that target patients who have specific genetic markers. The problem is, however, that progress in this field is painfully slow. Just a handful of biomarkers are discovered every year and in the past decade only one, HER2, has affected treatment. This lack of clinically useful biomarkers also slows down diagnosis, which has a direct effect on outcomes.

The Worldwide Innovative Networking (WIN) Consortium was founded in September 2010 to speed up research into this personalised approach. WIN, originally an initiative of the Institut Gustave Roussy near Paris and the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center, brings together 17 academic centres worldwide, three technology companies, and two patient groups in collaboration.

The goal is to take discoveries from the field of personalised medicine and translate them into items of clinical utility. In practice this means supporting a handful of trials each year that benefit from collaboration across member organisations of the consortium. By tapping into a wide variety of partners around the world, which have access to a highly diverse range of populations, the goal is that WIN trials will be completed in three to five years, much quicker than typical industry clinical trials. The intent is that where the results are positive, partner pharmaceutical and technology companies can develop products useful for cancer healthcare.

Vladimir Lazar, chief operating officer of WIN, reports that the consortium’s global reach, the expertise of those involved, and the operating model have already attracted the attention of several major pharmaceutical companies.

Although exciting for cancer research in general, this initiative may seem no more related to breast cancer treatment than to that of any other type of cancer. However, breast cancer research and WIN are closely intertwined. This begins on an institutional level. Dr Lazar explains that “breast cancer is of major interest for all partners of the consortium.” A number of the academic centres in WIN are heavily involved in researching and treating the disease, including Gustave Roussy, which has an innovative one-day diagnosis unit, and the MD Anderson Center, which has a pioneering breast cancer clinic.

Moreover, one of the original members of WIN is America’s National Breast Cancer Foundation and the latter’s founder, Janelle Hail, is a member of the consortium’s board. The interests of the two organisations align in a number of ways. Dr Lazar says that Ms Hail “supports more than anyone else WIN’s goal to bring scientific discoveries to the bed of patients quicker, and her outstanding contribution is to remind us that early diagnosis remains the best care that doctors can provide to their patients”. An even more important connection between breast cancer research and the work of WIN is that the former has actually provided much of the intellectual underpinning for the latter.

“Breast cancer is the model,” explains Dr Lazar. “Because of breast cancer, we understand how to fight cancer.” In particular, he notes, breast cancer treatment has been extremely important in the development of a number of core elements of modern oncology, such as the use of biopsies, echograms, and radiograms and the finding of genetic markers. “Breast cancer is where there is most accumulation of knowledge,”

Dr Lazar says. “Research into it is always pioneering. What was achieved in breast cancer is now spreading to the treatment of other cancers.”