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Cancer treatment is getting better. What about its costs?

April 14, 2021, 10:00 AM UTC

The pandemic and the current vaccine rollouts have highlighted the need for massive coordination between medical, business, and government entities—to fight COVID-19 as well as more common diseases, including cancer.

But despite major medical, scientific, and technological advances in cancer treatment and prevention, one massive question lingers over many large-scale efforts to fight these diseases.  

“There’s this balance you get into of, ‘Who’s going to pay for this?’” says Kathy Giusti, founder of the Multiple Myeloma Research Foundation (MMRF).

Last year, Giusti’s nonprofit spent between $30 million and $40 million building a service similar to those sold by 23andMe and other for-profit genomic sequencing companies. Now MMRF’s CureCloud project analyzes the blood of multiple myeloma patients—for free—and provides them with personalized advice about managing the rare blood cancer, which affects about 35,000 Americans per year.

“We as a nonprofit had to pay for it. So we had to develop all these business models to work with our pharmaceutical partners or academic partners, so that we’re all on this team and sharing the data,” Giusti added. “There is progress, but it’s heavy lifting.”

Giusti was one of four speakers to participate Tuesday in a virtual Fortune Brainstorm Health panel discussion about the future of cancer care. She was joined by Sean George, cofounder and CEO of genetic-testing company Invitae; Nick Naclerio, Ph.D., founding partner at biotech-focused VC firm Illumina Ventures; and Dr. Jewel Samadder, a professor and consultant for the Mayo Clinic.

Much of the conversation was focused on the advances in treatment and disease prevention—as well as the costs of doing so, and the need for greater collaboration among the pharma industry, academic and other medical institutions, and even the tech giants that are increasingly getting involved in health care.

For example, to create better data-sharing practices that still respect patient privacy, “you may need to partner with players like Google, who do A.I. and computing better than academia does, and probably better than pharma and biotech does,” Samadder suggested.

The nation’s response to COVID-19 has shown “that money does drive collaboration, but you have to have the right people at the table,” Giusti added. “You do want for-profit entities, you do want academic centers—but it has to be a mix of the right people.”