Modern Cancer Treatment Technology and How We Can Make it More Affordable
The physical and emotional realities of cancer are so overwhelming that many people never hear about the nefarious flip side to the equation. Treating cancer is overwhelmingly expensive. The out-of-pocket costs average in at around $40,000 meaning that many people come out the other end of their disease buried beneath a mountain of debt.
In extreme cases, the cost of care can come out to over $1 million. There are social and political reasons why cancer treatment in the United States costs what it does. However, some of the blame owes to the way that the disease is treated.
Modern technology may be able to decrease the cost of cancer treatment, making it more affordable for everyone. In this article, we look at a few technologies that could improve the affordability of ongoing cancer treatment.
The Current State of Affairs
Around ten years ago, the Whitehead family found themselves in an unimaginable situation. Their nine-year-old daughter, Emily, was suffering from a rare form of blood cancer. After months of treatments that were physically and emotionally painful, it was finally determined that the chemo wasn’t taking.
The Whitehead family was confronted with the overwhelming that a solution for their family’s problem might not exist. But then an opportunity emerged in the form of a then-obscure treatment method that the University of Pennsylvania was test-driving. CAR-T cell therapy.
With this concept healthcare givers hack the human body, reprogramming blood cells to hunt and kill cancer cells.
Emily not only survived her experience with CAR-T cell therapy but thrived in it. Ten years later, she is a healthy, cancer-free teenager.
Ten years? This technology has existed for a decade and I’m only hearing about it now?
There are two reasons that CAR-T cell therapy remains relatively obscure. The first is that it is still in what researchers refer to as a “clinical trial,” meaning that it has not been developed to the point that it can be taken out to mass scale.
The second reason? Price. The average cost is almost half a million dollars, but hospitals often offer the treatment for more than $1 million.
Why is it so expensive? The reasoning lies behind the way CAR-T cell therapy is performed. With traditional medicine production, time favors the sick. Medication may cost quite a bit when it is launched, but over time scalability increases, generics proliferate, and the treatment cost goes down.
CAR-T is a bespoke solution. Each patient starts from scratch with a custom treatment plan. Their cells are harvested, and processed at different labs. Manual interventions are frequent.
The process can take weeks, and result in a significant amount of human effort, resulting in an incredibly prohibitive cost.
However, there are ways that modern digital technology can change things in the right direction.
Automation is Key
When it comes to any form of manufacturing, automation is a key factor in reducing costs. When you eliminate the need for manual effort, you also take away one of the key price inflation control factors. The less time a process takes, the less expensive it becomes.
We live in an age where automation technology increases by the day. Below, we highlight several factors that can improve the CAR-T process— and, for that matter, other cancer research procedures— to reduce the cost significantly.
IoT, or “Internet of Things,” technology puts the power of the Internet into physical devices. On the home front, it is frequently applied to appliances to make them function more efficiently. It is often woven into sensor-based technology to monitor conditions and adjust them automatically so that they are always ideal.
IoT can be applied in lab settings to achieve a similar effect. Research labs require incredibly specific control of everything from temperature to airflow and humidity. These conditions are required both by government regulation and by the requirements of the processes themselves.
Historically, it has required a significant amount of human effort to maintain and test these conditions on a regular basis. IoT can automate much of this, making it more affordable to research and produce medication.
Artificial intelligence can ostensibly automate processes that used to hinge on human thought. AI programs are not yet self-learning in the same way that they are in science fiction, but they can perform tasks previously that would have been considered strictly within the domain of humankind.
In cancer research, the application of AI to process and comprehend enormous swaths of information in short quantities of time is of enormous value.
Humans still need to monitor research, of course. However, the potential for machine learning to participate in that process is enormous, both in how it could relate to future breakthroughs and in its ability to reduce costs.
Biosensors are sensors that can monitor human molecular activity to assess physical health. It’s a way to not only monitor a process that used to involve a heavy amount of human intervention but also increase access to real-time data in a way that was never before possible.
What do all of these technologies have in common? They are quite where we need them to be yet. Breakthroughs in all three of these technologies happen every single day. In fact, IoT is among the fastest-growing technologies to ever exist, with millions of new devices being created every day.
Unfortunately, a person diagnosed with cancer today probably won’t be in a position to benefit from any of these technologies when it comes to reducing the cost of their care. However, the trajectory of all of them is such that future progress could have an enormous impact not only on the quality of care but its affordability.