Startup Chief: Big Data May Yield Cancer Breakthroughs

Cancer diagnostics startupFoundation Medicineis one of a growing number of health care-related companies funded by Google's venture capital fund Google Ventures.

Foundation's big idea? To pinpoint potential growth drivers, or DNA alterations, in 200 cancer-associated genes and match patients with more personalized, targeted therapies, whether they are approved drugs or clinical trials.

To date, the company said more than 70 percent of all tests have indicated an actionable alteration in a tumor, such that there may be a useful drug for a patient.

Foundation's single-largest area of growth is pediatric oncology, where the use of targeted cancer therapies lags.

While Foundation won’t disclose the total number of orders, some 400 oncologists in 16 countries have ordered its test; 40 percent have been ordered by major U.S. academic centers and institutions, 40 percent by community oncologists and 20 percent by international customers.

Foundation medicine has announced collaborations with a number of companies, including Novartis, Celgene , Johnson & Johnson , Sanofi , Array BioPharma and Clovis Oncology .

Foundation's CEO Dr. Mike Pellini spoke with CNBC during NBCU's “Healthy Week”.

At Google Ventures, Managing Partner Bill Maris says his job is to discern the fine line between genius and crazy. What's Foundation's grand ambition, your vision for changing health care as we know it?

My sense is they recognized that Foundation Medicine was tackling a big idea that had the ability to impact the way cancer patients are being treated. In addition, the technology and IT components of our business are not at all insignificant. Google Ventures seems to perk up when big ideas in medicine are coupled with a need to think about bringing new information technology in as well.

For Foundation Medicine, the realization of our vision comes as we play a key role in the transformation of cancer careby enabling oncologists and pharmaceutical companies to understand each patient's cancer at the level of its molecular blueprint. We use our molecular profiling platform to identify the key drivers of a given tumor to help our clients use "targeted" drug to block the pathways that are causing the disease. When we get it right, the results for the patient can be quite impressive. This approach will revolutionize cancer management over time.

Why work with GV beyond the obvious, the Google name? Why should a health care company choose GV as an investor?

It's important, but for a reason that might not be obvious. As we build Foundation Medicine, and our sales reps reach into the smaller communities in the U.S. and even the international markets, potential clients might not immediately recognize the names of our founders, board members, or management team, even though many of the names are very well known in circles around Boston, New York and the [San Francisco] Bay area. However, everyone knows Google. It's a name that causes everyone to perk up, which is always beneficial to a great sales person.

Google is a tremendous resource for companies with diverse tech needs. To be clear, one does not have to be a tech company to have diverse technology needs. We have members of the extended Google Ventures team working with us to guide various technology-heavy initiatives at Foundation Medicine. My sense is that we have access to the world's expert as an adviser for every key Foundation Medicine effort that touches on a Google skill set. It would be very challenging for us as a relatively young company to access these resources without being involved with a group like Google Ventures. Google has opened up the keys to the Google domain for us.

[Our] dream has been accelerated, thanks to the involvement of Google Ventures. We're working our tails off. Consistently we hear from investors, pharma companies and oncologists, who say, "You guys are moving really quickly. You’ve done an awful lot for a company that’s only 3 years old." The relationship with Google Ventures has sped up the entire process.

Mining big data

How is the era of big data going to reshape health care, and how is Google's expertise here affecting Foundation's ambitions and possibilities?

Right now, we’re getting a glimpse into the potential medical power of tapping into well characterized (and anonymized or consented) genomic information generated from a few thousand cancer patients. As we start running not just hundreds but thousands of cancer specimens on a weekly basis, the amount of data we are going to be capturing is going to offer a treasure chest in terms of better understanding the very wide range of cancers found in patients of different age, sex, ethnicity.

Thomas Northcut | Stone | Getty Images

Ultimately, the real value to the oncology world will be obtained from organizing and providing access to meaningful information. Google has no equal on the planet in terms of categorizing, mining and searching vast amounts of data. At some point in the future, we expect that people will want to open up and be able to see data from tens or hundreds of thousands of patients, and hopefully that’s something we in which we can play an important role.

How will Foundation Medicine change the standard of cancer care as we know it?

Ultimately, by empowering every physician with a comprehensive understanding of the genomic drivers behind each patient’s disease. We’re starting to do this by thinking differently about the way that genomic information is collected, organized and put into use for the greater good. Our systems for information are being built to be able to scale in parallel with the amount of information we collect, and we are organizing our systems so that we can find the needles in the haystack that provide clues for targeted treatment, and allow us to make use of them in a robust way.

As we start to marry clinical data, genomic information and outcomes data, our sense is that we’ll be sitting on a very unique database that will be attractive to various parties. We have developed the infrastructure so we can be a partner to a company or a cancer center which wants to develop this type of database and incorporate such information into clinical practice, and you can imagine that physicians, payers, the Food and Drug Administration and others that may also benefit by tapping into such data.

From applying a new standard of comprehensive molecular testing for cancer patients today to big data tomorrow; that’s how we evolve and impact the future of cancer treatment. Though big data is not the key value driverof the business today, and it is even difficult to place an economic value on its long term value, we do know that this type of data will foster an entirely new way of thinking about cancer and treating cancer patients.