Chicago-based Philanthropist Takes Active Role in Combating Cancer

The field of medicine is entering a new phase of innovation. This is particularly true in fields dedicated to fighting cancer, where research for many types of illness stagnated throughout the 70s, 80s and 90s. One of the most important areas that could yield potential breakthroughs is the ability of oncologists and others involved in the fight against cancer to make use of the vast amount of data that will become available with the cheap sequencing of the human genome.

Tempus, a biotech firm co-founded by Chicago-based philanthropist Eric Lefkowsky, is seeking to create a system that will harness the vast data provided by human genome sequencing and provide powerful insights to front-line physicians in the fight against cancer. Lefkofsky has long been interested in medicine, as one of the Midwest's most giving philanthropists, he has been responsible for doling out tens of millions of dollars to medical causes ranging from children's hospitals to charities for the indigent elderly who cannot cover medical expenses.

But it was when a family member got sick with cancer that Lefkofsky first decided to shed the role of passive philanthropist and become actively involved in the fight against cancer. After accompanying his family member to various oncology clinics over the course of a year, Lefkofsky was shocked to discover that the average cancer specialists had less access to good data than a typical over-the-road truck driver.

This realization led Lefkofsky to co-found Tempus in 2106. The idea behind Tempus is to bring together all the data that could possibly be relevant to the treatment of any given cancer patient, then allow physicians and oncologists to query the data in order to be provided with meaningful insights into what treatment options are likely to maximize the survival of the patient. In short, Tempus is like a search engine for oncologists, but with extremely powerful knowledge discovery tools that allow doctors to run powerful queries that are effectively equivalent to performing clinical studies, all at the push of a button.

A trove of ground-breaking data

Lefkofsky believes that the next major revolution in medicine will not be so heavily based in the development of new techniques, as were previous medical revolutions, but instead, it will be based on doctors learning how increasingly granular patient cohorts respond to various treatments.

This is particularly true in the field of cancer research and oncology. The treatments that are currently available, while far less crude than the first really successful protocols that started to emerge in the 1940s, are still blunt instruments. Modern oncologists, in effect, are like mechanics who are only allowed to fix cars with an adjustable wrench.

But with modern data science, soon, oncologists may have an entire garage full of the most nuanced and ingenious tools that medicine has ever seen. One way in which this can be seen is by looking at a treatment like chemotherapy. The distribution of patient outcomes for any given treatment regimen is often extremely wide, with some patients making full recoveries and others faring poorly. By definition, such treatments are extremely crude.

Today, oncologists don't really understand the factors that lead some patients to make full recoveries while others don't make it at all. But with the Tempus platform, doctors may soon have the tools to understand the subtle differences between patients' biological and genetic makeup. This could mean that, in the future, all patients will receive treatments that will put them in the top 1 percent of today's patient distributions.