July, 2016

Operation Overload

By Michael J. Katin, MD

June 6, 1944, will be remembered as the date on which Allied forces crossed the English Channel to France with the intention of directly engaging German troops in Western Europe with the goal of reaching a successful conclusion of the Second World War. Previous invasion plans, Operation Roundup and Operation Sledgehammer, were abandoned in favor of Operation Overlord.

June 6, 2016, will be remembered as the date on which the Genetic Data Commons (GDC) was declared open by Vice President Joseph Biden. The GDC is described as "A Data Sharing Program to Promote Precision Oncology" and thus far combines information from the Cancer Genome Atlas (TCGA) and Therapeutically Applicable Research to Generate Effective Treatments (TARGET, a masterpiece of manipulating words to create an acronym). Was it launched on June 6 with the hope of having the same success against cancer as the Normandy landing had against the Nazis? Probably a coincidence.

Eventually the goal is to access data from other trial groups and, presumably, be able to do DNA sequencing of all patients entered into these trials. It already has access to two petabytes of data, with each petabyte being equal to one thousand terabytes, with each terabyte equal to one thousand gigabytes. This is a phenomenal concept, although with the recognition that by next year the average cell phone will probably need that capacity to carry out more and more critical functions.

There would seem to be no question that in today's civilization that throwing technology at problems will be guaranteed to solve them. This has been the case so far with alternative energy programs, such as Solyndra, and with our national defense, such as the F-35 joint strike fighter plane. Obtaining DNA information on every cancer specimen should lead to rapid and major improvements in precision medicine, unlike the primitive treatments that are currently offered. Tremendous progress can be made with multiple groups working together (to some extent, anyway: Foundation Medicine is suing Guardant Health over patent infringement) for the benefit of humankind.

This type of massive data gathering has paid off in many other fields of interest. The Committee on Endangered Languages and Their Preservation (CELP) of the Linguistic Society of America was established in 1992 for the documentation and study of endangered languages and has already categorized 6,909 distinct languages, including 832 in Papua-New Guinea alone!
Technology will also be critical In mollusc classification, since, although there are only seven major groups, there are over 50,000 known species, with more being discovered every year, with phylogenetic analysis done on DNA. Another worthwhile beneficiary of modern technology would be the Letter Box Study Group, which has its goal as identification and photographic documentation of every letter box in the British Royal Mail system. It is certainly hoped that mutual techniques of these organizations can be shared for the advancement of all.

It is presumed that the outcome of studies of the GDC will be totally beneficent, since HIPAA restrictions will of necessity be difficult to enforce. As it is, pretty much everything we do is documented anyway, either through monitoring of telephone conversations, credit card purchase patterns, and internet search analysis, and it would seem improbable that our government would take advantage of knowing our DNA sequencing for any nefarious reason.

Emanuel Countdown: Dr. Ezekiel Emanuel's biographies list his birth year as 1957 but, interestingly, do not list a birth date. He has expressed that he does not wish to live past his 75th birthday. Giving him every benefit of the doubt, he will have his 75th birthday no later than December 31, 2032. Including July 1, 2016, this leaves 6,028 days to his goal.