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Interview: Helping cancer patients access potentially lifesaving testing and treatment

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More than 60 per cent of cancer patients are missing out on potentially life-saving treatments because their physicians aren’t able to provide them with all the information they need.

Patient immersion platform Swellter is working to bridge the gap between laboratory and pharmaceutical companies so they can easily share relevant and potentially transformative diagnostic and therapeutic options with oncologists and cancer patients.

Founder and CEO Rebecca Owens said the platform will put the information in front of patients at the point of diagnosis and enrich the oncology patient-provider experience through consent, education, and data sharing in real-time.

HTW: How did the platform come about?

RO: “I have spent the last 20 years researching, learning, selling, creating and building novel solutions that would bridge gaps in communication and understandings about cancer testing, treatments and overall care.

“When COVID hit, I took a step back and realised we have a huge problem. More than 60 per cent of patients who have cancer are not being offered biomarker genomic sequencing testing. And if they’re not being offered that test, then they can’t qualify for targeted therapies or clinical trials. So a lot of people are missing out on potential treatment.

“I decided to take a step back from educating physicians about these complicated tests and build a platform that puts the information in front of a patient at the point of care when they’re diagnosed

“Because there’s really no reason why we can’t tell a patient about their disease

“My fiancee is a stage four melanoma survivor. He was never offered the testing that I’ve talked about and fortunately, he survived.

“But he should have had genomic profiling done in order to see what the options were.

“If he’d had access to a platform that said ‘you have stage four melanoma, ask your doctor about this test – it’s the most relevant for you’ then he would have had the opportunity to have that test or at least have the conversation with his doctor to see if it was appropriate for him.”

HTW: How will Swellter work?

RO: “It’s a bit like Amazon. If you buy a pair of running shoes on Amazon, the algorithm will offer you other relevant things like a water bottle or a heart rate monitor. There’s no reason why we can’t leverage similar technology in healthcare to give patients their options.

“We work with the clinic to extract the data from their EMR database. Our engineers have built an automated tool to ingest that data and structure it in a new database.

“So that new database then gets a persistent feed of all the clinical data, as well as the structured laboratory diagnostic data. This is updated on a daily basis.

“We also have content libraries. We match the data that’s in the patient’s medical record database to the content library. So there’s a triangulation of database and library content which is pushed to the user interface.

“And then as the record changes, let’s say unfortunately if a patient goes from stage two to an advanced stage four, then the application would inform them and explain what that means, what new treatments and clinical trials are available to them. Along with suggestions of what they should be asking their doctor, based on their own medical changes.

“And new technology, tests or drugs will come onto the platform as they get approved.

“With cancer it’s critical. After a diagnosis, we leave the doctor’s office and we don’t know what to ask. We’re confused and scared but we trust our physicians and believe that they know everything when they don’t always.

“We can use this platform to reduce fear and confusion and increase opportunities for testing and training.”

HTW: Why isn’t something like this already available?

RO: “In the US you need health insurance and that can dictate what treatment you get.

“Even if you have health insurance or a health plan, a doctor can still turn around and say your insurance doesn’t cover that test. They don’t give the patient the option to pay for it or tell them who they can call so they can arrange the test with the laboratory themself.

“There’s also a lot of confusion among doctors as well. They don’t want you to request the tests because they don’t really know exactly what some of these things mean.

“And then on the therapeutic side, you only get what’s approved by the FDA. What’s interesting is, here in the US there’s more ‘off label’ drug use in oncology than any other field really. You have to try all the other treatments and have them fail before you can be treated with something else because they don’t want you to go outside the standard of care.

HTW: Do you think physicians will be enthusiastic about Swellter?

RO: “I don’t know if they’ll be enthusiastic about it. I think a lot of them will look at it as more work. And they’re so busy. A lot of oncologists are seeing 30 patients a day.

“They may be enthusiastic about the opportunity to collect more meaningful data.

“They all want to play in this world of big data and Swellter will help them structure their data so they’ll be able to use it for research.”

HTW: Data is like gold these days, isn’t it?

RO: “Absolutely. And a huge part of what we’re doing is focused on patient consent to the use of that data.

“A lot of companies think if you can’t identify where the data has come from then anybody can use it. And that’s crap. We give the patient the ability to consent at various levels as to how they want their data, shared and used. Whether it be for research, or even for commercial use.

“And they can turn that on or off at any time from the platform and the physician’s practice is also notified so they always know their patient’s data preferences. Nobody else is doing that. And I think it’s a crying shame because at the end of the day, it’s the patient’s data, it’s their personal information. I don’t know at what point the healthcare industry decided that it was their data.

“You see it a lot in my industry, especially in genomic sequencing. Companies will say it’s their data. But how can it be their data when the physician chose to send them a specimen for testing and it’s the patient’s DNA. And then they go and make billions of dollars off whatever they develop using the patient’s data.

“I think it’s awful. And it’s not helping patients directly. This is my beef, everybody wants your DNA and data for research. So they’ll grab your consent while you’re there in their office, they don’t even give you time to think about it. And then they use your information and you and your family will never know what happened with it.

“When you donate an organ, you can usually find out who it went to. We should be doing the same thing with people who consent for their tumour cells to be used for research. Patients should know if their data is directly benefiting other people like them.”

HTW: When will Swellter be available?

RO: “We’re working on raising the capital, then we’ll get the platform up and running and within six months we’ll start to deploy it to the oncology clinics.

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