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CIOs join forces to battle cancer

Stephanie Overby | May 30, 2014
Join forces with a seeming archrival to develop a data-sharing platform? Jay Ferro ... Ferro is the CIO of the American Cancer Society (ACS).

For every IT decision he makes, he calculates how many donations it will cost. "Governance is a huge part of what we do," says Ferro. "Which initiative will generate the most income, which funds life-saving research and programs? Which will save the most money, which leaves more funds for life-saving research and programs?"

That metric creates a different feeling from the one Ferro had at previous jobs. "A cervical cancer researcher I know says there are three ways to look at what you do: Some people have a job, some people have a career, and some people are on a crusade," Ferro says. "We're on a crusade. And that's difficult to recreate if you're selling widgets."

At LLS, Como applied technology to help the organization better manage its portfolio of research efforts. As a result, LLS is now funding efforts in biotech and pharmaceutical companies in addition to academia. "It's all about the best science," he says. "And to heck with the rest."

He's testing analytics to improve revenue and field operations and exploring how the organization might analyze patient genomic information to figure out how to deliver the best outcomes. "We're dealing with a very complex set of diseases--over 145 blood cancer diseases that all react differently to different treatments," Como says.

Como, who also cut $5 million of annual cost by streamlining enterprise IT, laughs when people say nonprofits don't have a bottom-line orientation. "That's not true," he says. "The bottom line is even more in-your-face. Every dollar you don't spend goes to the mission."

Como was initially surprised by that added pressure, but it's just elevated the role of IT. "Our needs are plentiful, but our ability to meet those needs is limited," says Como. When a commercial enterprise needs more money, it sells investors on the promise of future return. At LLS and other cancer nonprofits, says Como, "we have to sell hope."

Fighting Cancer With IT
In the 19th century, the use of the microscope to study the pathology of disease led to the birth of modern oncology. CIOs working in the cancer field today say we're on the verge of a similar revolution. Two hundred years ago, "they realized there were things that couldn't be seen with the naked eye that could explain how the disease progressed," says Skarulis of Memorial Sloan Kettering. "It's that type of change we're experiencing today in terms of being able to see things we couldn't see before."

Next-generation DNA sequencing is the microscope of the 21st century. More streamlined and affordable technologies for studying the DNA of cancer cells are expected to speed up the development and implementation of improved--and personalized--cancer treatments. Next-generation sequencing methods are much faster than their traditional forebears, producing millions or billions of sequences at once. And the cost is plummeting. The Human Genome Project needed $3 billion and 13 years to sequence our DNA.


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