You’ve probably heard the statistics: One in eight women will develop breast cancer over the course of her lifetime. Breast cancer death rates for women in the U.S. are higher than for any other cancer except lung cancer. There is a lot of progress that needs to be made in detection, diagnosis, and therapy—and plenty of money to be had for those who can make it. So when GE announced last year that it was launching a $100 million global open innovation challenge as part of its Healthymagination initiative, it came as no surprise to learn that breast cancer would be the first focus.
Now GE has revealed the five winners of the first phase of the challenge, which asked entrants to submit solutions that advance breast cancer early detection and diagnostics with a focus on triple-negative breast cancer, which is typically more aggressive and less responsive to standard treatments than other forms of the disease. 25,000 to 30,000 patients each year are diagnosed with triple-negative breast cancer.
The challenge yielded 500 entries from 40 countries. The winners were chosen by a panel of judges that included GE executives, venture capital partners, and leaders in the health care industry. "I read through all 500 entries," says Lisa Kennedy, director of strategic marketing at Healthymagination. "The quality was exceptional." All of the winners will receive $100,000 and the opportunity to be mentored by GE.
70,000 women with breast cancer have mastectomies each year, but silicone breast implants have a 30% failure rate, with leakage and rupture occurring all too often. Dr. Judit Puskas, a professor of polymer science at The University of Akron, is working with a team to develop a new kind of implant, one made out of a rubber polymer that is significantly stronger than silicone. That would be impressive enough, but Puskas also hopes to put a coating embedded with chemotherapy drugs in the implant that could deliver targeted treatments to patients.
That’s not as far out as it sounds; the Taxus Drug Eluting Stent, a drug-coated heart stent, is already FDA-approved. "You basically just mix the drug with a polymer, make it into a coating, and as you place it into the body, it slowly diffuses out of the polymer," she says.
According to Puskas, there are multiple clinical trials currently looking at targeted cancer drug delivery, but none are for breast cancer, and they all require injections. Puskas believes that by delivering drugs locally through the implant, "you can use a lot lower concentration and reduce the side effects of chemo." The manufacturing cost for the rubber polymer is lower than the cost of silicone, too.
Puskas hopes to have a prototype implant ready within a year. GE’s contribution will undoubtedly help. "$100,000 is a great gift because, as a university professor, I spend about half of my time or even more in writing proposals to get money. This is definitely a shot in the arm," she says.
MyCancerGenome, a website spun out of Vanderbilt University, is collecting information on genome-related clinical trials for triple-negative breast cancer, new information on mutations that make breast cancer grow, what those mutations mean for treatment, and more. MyCancerGenome also offers information for other types of cancer, including colon cancer, lung cancer, and melanoma.
The Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle and the Uganda Cancer Institute (UCI) in Kampala are collaborating on a breast cancer screening program in Uganda that will use ultrasound—an efficient and cost-effective method for finding breast cancer in younger women with palpable lumps—to screen women. Aggressive triple-negative breast cancer disproportionately affects black women, making early detection imperative.
Women with suspicious lumps will be sent to the UCI, and anyone who has a biopsy will have their tissue and blood banked, creating the first repository in the region for both benign and malignant tumors.
The Moffitt Cancer Center aims to learn more about genetic "modifier" genes and how they contribute to cancer spreading throughout the body after diagnosis. Eventually, this research could lead to genetic testing that predicts which patients are most at risk for cancer spread—something that could inform the aggressiveness of treatment.
Triple-negative breast cancer isn’t just one disease. Researchers at Vanderbilt-Ingram Cancer Center have found that there are actually six disease subtypes for triple-negative breast cancer, all of which probably respond differently to chemotherapy. With that in mind, the researchers are gearing up for clinical trials that are targeted directly to these subtypes.
The five winners will be rewarded with cash, but GE also plans to incubate promising entrants that didn’t make it to the top five. There will be more open innovation challenges in the future as well, possibly including some that focus on other types of cancer. Considering the number of entrants for a challenge that is admittedly narrow (focusing on such a specific type of cancer), it’s likely that GE will have little trouble giving away future cash awards and mentoring opportunities.