Using Data to Save Lives: Wesley Harrott of the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center Shares How Medical Research Benefits from Emerging Technologies
This podcast episode is part of the EdTech Times podcast series, Preparing Your Organization for the Next Generation Research Enterprise, sponsored by Huron.
When it comes to medical research, the ability to share and analyze data rapidly and effectively can literally save lives.
According to Wesley Harrott, Associate Vice President of Research Administration at the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center, data can be used to accelerate the path to medical solutions.
“We have many, many years of data that we have available to us. And we generate much, much more every day,” he says. “Using EHR, electronic health records, really is allowing us to consume and to document data much more effectively, and hopefully consistently, that will allow us to do more research into it. And if we can get to that point, where we can really start interrogating that data effectively, that’s it.”
Wesley says that with the rising prevalence of biometric and health-related technologies, researchers are getting closer to finding these solutions. Technology today is being used to leverage massive amounts of data to complete very complicated, multi-factored functions, like predicting where a pandemic may spread. Yet when it comes to cancer, he says sometimes predictive analytics are even less cut and dry.
“Cancer is more complicated, unfortunately. It’s a very wily disease. It moves constantly. We think we’ve got to be one place, and all of a sudden, in response to that, it goes in a different direction. And so that’s the thing. And again, that’s where the data will be powerful, as we see over time it responded this way, did this, it went here, it responded to this that way. Hopefully it gets us where we want to be and finding the ultimate solutions,” he says.
While it’s tempting to push forward technologies that could help accelerate cures for diseases such as cancer, medical research institutions need to be particularly cautious in order to protect confidential patient information.
“For us particularly, being in the clinical environment, patient data — that’s very sensitive,” he says. “And so, making sure we’re responsible for and protective of it obviously is a big topic of conversation right now. And certainly we take that as a priority.”
So, how can medical research institutions use data to make life-saving developments, while still ensuring their patients’ privacy is protected and government regulations are upheld? Listen in to our interview with MD Anderson’s Wesley Harrott to learn more about the technological developments and unique considerations of cancer research.
Hannah Nyren: Hello this is Hannah Nyren with EdTech Times. Today we are speaking with Wesley Harrott, associate V.P. of research administration at the University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center. Hi Wesley. How’s it going?
Wesley Harrott: Great, great to be with you and talk about these subjects. It’s a very interesting time in research and in the environment, as we move forward with some of the technology changes and with the opportunities we have there. Having spent the last 20 years in the business, it’s amazing how far we’re coming so quickly now. And I expect the next 10 years will be really unbelievable.
Hannah Nyren: Certainly a lot is changing right now. And so to get started, can you tell me a little bit about your own personal career background and your role at M.D. Anderson? And also, what makes M.D. Anderson unique?
Wesley Harrott: Sure. We have been one of the top cancer centers in the country for the last 10 of the last 13 years, I believe. And we are very committed to our patients, that’s really our driver. And so that’s a great place for our research work firm. Our departments are very interdisciplinary, they work together on research. We have basic researchers, we have clinical. Obviously people spend a great deal of time with patients. Everyone’s in that environment. So it really drives that forward. I’ve been in research for about 20 years now. I’ve covered pretty much all aspects of grant administration, from financials through compliance, and I spent most of the last 10 years dealing with compliance and pre-award proposals, those types of things. And as of late, have been more involved with business opportunities to support our research.
Hannah Nyren: Great. So what are a few of those business opportunities to support your research?
Wesley Harrott: Sure. So the thing we have to consider right now is again the situation with the federal government. Funding from the federal government is becoming more and more difficult. About 10 percent of our faculty members who submit are able to get a federal grant. So, there’s a lot of other areas that we try to pursue, and certainly with industry being one of them — about a third of funding for higher ed is from industry. But in reality, industry sponsors about 70 percent of the R&D in the country. And so developing better collaborations with them to produce more opportunities for research with that funding is really fundamental to what we’re doing.
Wesley Harrott: The other thing is, again, internationally. From an international perspective, China is going to surpass the U.S. most likely in 2020 as the primary funder of R&D. And has already passed the EU. So that is an area that we have spent a lot of time developing relationships there, and building opportunities to collaborate with them. It’s very important. It’s a unique situation. It has challenges. All these do with industry and with international partners. But in general, those are the areas that are great opportunities— people and organizations very interested in pursuing development. And we want to use that to help our patients.
Hannah Nyren: Now, that’s a really interesting point you bring up. I remember in your panel this morning, there was at least one slide that showed the future of investment in this research. And it was on a steep decline as of this year, you know, maybe a little bit earlier. So what are the implications of, you know, research relying on private funding and, you know, other sources of revenue other than the government?
Wesley Harrott: Yeah, I think that that’s just reality. And that was a projection based on the president’s budget proposal for this year. Congress did not go along with that this year— which is good. But in the next few years, it may be tougher and tougher as deficits grow. It’s just going to be a reality that these things are going to be looked at. And if that comes to pass, then the funding that’s available and supports our research will be dramatically decreased. We’ve certainly been fortunate to have great philanthropic support from individuals and from companies over the years. That’s been an important part of our overall portfolio. We’ve been able to use some of the margin from our clinical operations to help support some of our clinical trials and those types of activities. With the challenges in that sphere now, with the demand to contain costs, and the demand to limit how much clinical care is — that’s an area that’s a challenge. Payers are more demanding than ever. So the amount of money that we can be supported by that from insurance, from the federal government, all of those areas is getting more and more difficult. Constantly. So, we definitely are trying to reach these other mechanisms.
Wesley Harrott: Again, these alliances with industry are critical. And already, our philanthropy, internal funding, those types of things are about 20 percent of our overall portfolio of research.
Wesley Harrott: And I think that’s pretty much where everybody’s at right now. I think that we have to take advantage of technology to make these things more cost effective. And I think there’s a lot of opportunities there. I think that certainly the question of in vivo models going for how we use those. Those are expensive models. As we move to using artificial intelligence, or we use algorithms, we use software to drive these research activities, it may move it less out of a physical environment into more of a digital environment.
Hannah Nyren: Definitely, definitely. And I’ve already seen a lot of really innovative uses of technology in healthcare. What are a few ways that technology is being used or will be used within that research environment?
Wesley Harrott: Certainly, compliance is important. But there’s a lot of aspects of it that are consistent. And I think where we can use technology to process those things with minimal interactions on the part of faculty and the staff, and where we can use those efforts other places is a great opportunity.
Wesley Harrott: The big data is really the future for research. There’s no doubt about that. And being able to get it in a format that’s usable is a challenge. And then being able to manipulate that and really again, as I mentioned this morning, it’s the people that know the right questions to ask at the right places to dig into that data to get the right answers. And I think our clinicians are in a good place to do that, but obviously our basic researchers are as well. But that would move it again from a physical model to a digital model. And then just use the physical model at a much more streamlined perspective. That will also theoretically limit how much we put into buildings and those types of things.
Hannah Nyren: Right, because there may be fewer people but, more tools to take care of the more rote, repetitive processes.
Hannah Nyren: So I know Big Data is a blessing and a curse of technology today in many different sectors. There are all these resources at our fingertips. There’s this possibility to collect all this data from different sources. But what are some of the challenges of having all of this data at our fingertips?
Wesley Harrott: There’s quite a few. For us particularly, being in the clinical environment, patient data — that’s very sensitive. And so, making sure we’re responsible for and protective of it obviously is a big topic of conversation right now. And certainly we take that as a priority. It’s something we pay close attention to. That said, when you have the amount of data and the number of people that are working on it, occasionally errors happen. And that’s really what we want to focus on, is making sure those don’t occur.
Wesley Harrott: The other thing is just the volume. We have many, many years of data that we have available to us. And we generate much, much more every day. We’ve gone to electronic health records now, so using EHR, electronic health records, really is allowing us to consume and to document data much more effectively. And then trying to get to the right question umm and being able to interrogate that data effectively is the challenge. And so we have people that have been working on that for a number of years. And if we can get to that point where we can really start interrogating that data effectively, that’s it. We’re definitely getting closer, I mean we’re getting better all the time. But that’s where we get to keep working towards.
Hannah Nyren: So if someone can create a solution for that…
Wesley Harrott: Right exactly, exactly. And you look at how people have used data around the world recently — certainly there’s some very creative people and hopefully we have some folks like that that we can have same type of incredible outputs. You think about their ability to identify where a pandemic might spread. That’s very complicated. Cancer is more complicated, unfortunately. It’s a very wily disease. It moves constantly. We think we’ve got to be one place, and all of a sudden, in response to that, it goes in a different direction. And so that’s the thing. And again, that’s where the data will be powerful, as we see over time it responded this way, did this, it went here, it responded to this that way. Hopefully it gets us where we want to be and finding the ultimate solutions.
Hannah Nyren: I think that’s a really interesting, though. Especially when it comes to cancer — because there are so many factors when it comes to cancer. So what kind of data would you be able to analyze. Like, correlative factors in environment, occupations—things like that?
Wesley Harrott: Well, ideally yes. The challenge is, in many cases, we’re obviously coming into contact with these patients to the point well down the line. And so we don’t initially have that epidemiological data to refer to. We can ask questions, but it’s still going to be different. And there’s going to be factors that are not known. But we certainly are building cohorts on those models now. And there are opportunities to do data collection over long terms and particular groups, families, those types of things.
Wesley Harrott: General environment’s very very tough. But we do know prevention is the best cure. And we’ve certainly seen that tobacco is a huge problem. Alcohol’s somewhat of a problem. And then you get into exercise and diet. These things all make a difference, and what’s in the diet. So, a lot of factors there. It’s going to be tough to find the exact pieces. And maybe as we have the situation where we’re collecting data throughout our lives with our — all our electronic devices, our Fitbits, and our myfitnesspals and all the different types of devices while we collect a lot of our dietary information — maybe those types of outcomes can be determined. Or at least become more known. But right now, we’re pretty far away from that.
Hannah Nyren: Yeah. I guess if you really take into consideration the internet of things and all the devices that connect us all, you could track a lot. But it’s growing and the more data that is collected the more information you’ll have. So, how will these big data requirements that you’re talking about accelerate the movement to the cloud?
Wesley Harrott: The management of this data and the volumes of it are just going to be overwhelming for an organization whose focus is not that. I mean, we certainly have a large I.T. component. But that’s not our core mission. And so we really want to focus on our core mission and have someone or some entity that is focused on that, help us focus on that.
Wesley Harrott: And so I think that’s where the cloud really presents a great opportunity. We may know the right questions to ask, but we may need somebody else to help us figure out how to get into the data and do that. And I think with the cloud it really helps that, and it allows us to share it with collaborators in a way that’s meaningful, where they have expertise.
Hannah Nyren: Yeah definitely. How do you think predictive analytics could reduce compliance risk?
Wesley Harrott: From a compliance standpoint, we spend a lot of time what I call “checking boxes.” We have to make sure that these things are done, that these agreements say what we want them to say. That these protocols are vetted effectively. And so there’s a lot of eyes on data looking at these things. The reality is, and I’ve always told my staff this, we’re spending most of our time on probably 90 per percent of the activities that are common. They don’t require substantive consideration. But we have to look at them to make sure that we’re not missing something that does.
Wesley Harrott: And so that is again where technology can really help us just look for the exceptions. Look for the things that are not the norm, so that we can address those. Whether it’s in a contract, where standard language for some reason was not used or unusual clauses were used. Or whether it’s in a protocol, or some activity that they’re proposing is an unusual activity. Again, I can look at a contract in a minute and tell you what the unusual clauses are. Somebody else on my staff might be able to look at it for an hour and not see the clause I saw. If you can take that, and then you know free that individual up to spend time on the exceptional clauses and be aware of it, or on a protocol, to see there’s something unusual there. We want to make sure our committees look at those things and give us meaningful feedback on that, and our committees don’t spend a lot of time on something that is standard.
Hannah Nyren: Yeah, and there could possibly be easier ways to flag this sort of thing.
Wesley Harrott: Absolutely. I think again there’s a lot of technology that can be used. And has been used in some test environments but its not something that’s widely available. But I think when we can get there, again, that really reduces the administrative burden on the institution. It releases people to focus on the important things — the critically important things. Not that all these are important. But again, if it’s redundantly important that’s not the best use of our time. So the unique, critically important areas and that goes for our investigators, for our staff, for everybody. So that we can help our investigators do the important things and we really can focus on unleashing the full utility of everyone as opposed to tying it down with, and again I hate to say it, but a lot of box checking.
Hannah Nyren: I mean it’s true. A lot of the work that technology will be replacing is the redundancies and the things that people don’t necessarily want to be spending their time doing, so that they can focus on the work that they were trained to do.
Wesley Harrott: Absolutely. And again just from my perspective, from an institutional standpoint, I don’t want somebody that is in one of my offices to miss something because they’re human. I mean they’ve got a lot going on. And again, they’re looking at a lot of these areas that need to be checked to make sure they take care of them. I did that. But did they do it well? And so they can not spend their time on the rote activities and focus on the important areas, that’s really the best value for everybody.
Wesley Harrott: And we have to have this technology available and we have to make sure it does what we want it to do first. So we’re a ways off from that. But I think that is something with the way technologies have gone. When you think about driving a self driving car as a driver, we know that we tune out, and most of the stuff just happens. The good thing is, whenever I tune out and I’m talking on the phone or messing with my device, the car will still be watching. I have a vehicle that tells me if I start getting out of my lane. OK. Should I feel bad about that? No. That’s a great thing. And to me that’s the same thing these technologies can do in our review processes and our protocol reviews and our grant reviews.
Hannah Nyren: But you don’t do that, right? You don’t mess with your advice — your device while you’re driving?
Wesley Harrott: Absolutely not. It’s just a theoretical idea. But it can be something as simple as changing the radio station. You know, when you look down for a minute and all of a sudden—
Hannah Nyren: Or figuring out the GPS.
Wesley Harrott: Right. Right. Right. Where am I going? Was I supposed to turn there or not?
Hannah Nyren: So you mentioned this morning that your research compliance organization might look more like a service center outsourcing pieces when appropriate. What might that look like?
Wesley Harrott: Sure. I think there’s aspects of this that are very consistent, should be consistent between organizations. And there are best practices for a great deal of it. Where we have used it and we will use it is in situations where we may have a bandwidth issue, where we have a limited amount of resources available to support new work or growing work. And we want to pursue that work, but not necessarily invest resources. And so if you, again, central IRBs are an area. It’s very uncomfortable, particularly for an institution that does as many clinical trials as us, to turn over an IRB role to someone outside of our institution. But they do it, they do it well, they do a lot of it. We know what we have to give them. And they are going to follow the guidelines and the rules. We want outside perspective on these types of things. And it’s worked very well.
Wesley Harrott: But it would make just as much sense to use that for other areas where we may have a need. And I think that has gotten everyone’s comfort level building with outsourcing some of these things. And certainly if you could do it with IRB, there’s not any reason you couldn’t do it with anything else they need. There are companies that do biosafety committees. So there’s really not any area where you couldn’t do that. It’s just getting comfortable with it and being willing to trust that they are capable and able of doing it. And then, I think that if you can go there, then it’s not a far step to where you’re outsourcing quite a bit of that activity.
Hannah Nyren: And how do you ensure that these outside sources are aligning with your guidelines and compliance?
Wesley Harrott: Well with the IRB, you know, there’s— there’s clear standards, federally. Relatively clear. But it has interpretations. But again if they have the appropriate approvals in place from the agencies then it would be appropriate to utilize their services and to have confidence in that. Certainly institutionally we would want to evaluate those things upfront and make sure that we’re comfortable with their perspective and their expertise. But if they are then, yeah, you know, I think we can be comfortable with that.
Wesley Harrott: I think, you know, we even see it within our own shop where we’ve got expertise in building protocols inside systems and those types of things. And the question is, is there an opportunity for us to share that with others? Is our mechanism where when we build it, because we’ve done it frequently, we can share that with with other institutions.You know we’re not there. But that would make sense and makes sense for everyone to leverage off of each other in a way that maximizes those values that are just everyone redoing it.
Hannah Nyren: I think that’s what’s really unique about medical research and cancer research is, you know, you’re not competing with anyone. It benefits the world for you to share this data. So it will be really interesting to see if research—I mean research will definitely be sped up when all of this data is more widely accessible and people can share it more quickly.
Wesley Harrott: That is key. And I think the magic bullet is still going to be, how do we interrogate it effectively? I think we have the treasure trove available we’re just not sure how to get to— we don’t really have the map of it yet, I guess.
Hannah Nyren: Well, hopefully that map will come along.
Wesley Harrott: Absolutely.
Hannah Nyren: Well, thank you so much for speaking with me today. It’s been a pleasure.
Wesley Harrott: Thank you, it’s been my pleasure as well.
This episode is brought to you by Huron.
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