Health House

The future is now: Precision oncology

On May 6, we concluded our three-part series on personalized healthcare with an in-person event at Health House in Leuven, where we got a glimpse into the future of healthcare and the latest technologies.

At this final event in the series, we dove deep into precision cancer medicine, after exploring the evolution of healthcare personalization and data science & digital technology at the two previous sessions.

Personalized healthcare is about providing the right treatment for the right patient at the right time – and this is particularly the case in oncology, where molecular, genetic and genomic data can be used to better define therapeutic strategies and improve patient outcomes.

Precision cancer medicine is already being translated into clinical use in Belgium.

During the panel discussion, Dr. Roberto Salgado, Anatomical-Pathologist, ZNA GZA, explained that the number of commercially available solutions has increased significantly in recent years: from testing four genes for lung cancer and three genes for colorectal cancer in 2016 to hundreds of different gene tests today.

“In Belgium, we have a well-functioning system that defines the genes that require testing based on the scientific evidence that supports it,” he said.

With the availability of multi-gene testing panels, patients can be classified for different treatment options. “It is our role to provide the best care to patients,” said Dr. Philippe Aftimos, Oncologist, Institut Jules Bordet. “The evidence from clinical trials supports the additional survival benefit” of this approach.

Dr. Aftimos speculated about the future: will the cost and turnaround time of whole genome sequencing fall enough for it to become part of daily practice?

While we wait for that future, next-generation sequencing (NGS) is already here.

“Not every hospital needs to offer next-generation sequencing,” argued Dr. Marc Van den Bulcke, Head of Cancer Center, Sciensano. “As a country, Belgium has taken a pragmatic and cost-effective approach by identifying 19 NGS labs.” Only some of these labs are equipped to do complex gene testing.

Many of the breakthroughs in personalized healthcare will come from data collection, sharing and analysis. For complex cases, national tumor boards drive expertise and knowledge-sharing – and for rare cases, there would be value in European tumor boards.

A well-performing health data ecosystem will be required as “the use of Real-World Evidence to demonstrate outcomes will be increasingly important in the context of personalized medicines,” added Professor Erik Schokkaert, Faculty of Economics, KU Leuven.

He particularly sees the potential of artificial intelligence (AI) to combine different data sources and leverage the information that is being collected by hospitals. Professor Schokkaert allayed some of the concerns about AI, saying “It will not replace doctors, but will provide different viewpoints to support better decision-making.”

The discussion ended with two final considerations. First, the economic impact of precision medicine – while this has long been a matter of debate, prevention still needs to be brought into the discussion. Second, education – for patients and also for healthcare providers who need to keep pace with technological developments.

Our thanks to all the speakers and moderators as well as Amgen, Smart Hub Vlaams-Brabant and Health House for their support in the organization of this event. This event series was organized by AmCham Belgium’s Personalized Healthcare Subcommittee, an initiative of our Innovative Healthcare Committee