Knowledge Sharing Is Power ORIEN Connects Cancer Fighters Through Data
ORIEN is where science and business intersect to utilize big data and move cancer research forward at an accelerated pace, which means it’s the perfect organization for Jeff Walker to help lead.
“It has already become something unique and beneficial for cancer research, and it’s growing exponentially,” says Walker, COO and senior executive director at The Ohio State University Comprehensive Cancer Center – Arthur G. James Cancer Hospital and Richard J. Solove Research Institute (OSUCCC – James).
ORIEN – the Oncology Research Information Exchange Network – began in May, 2014 as a data-sharing collaboration between the OSUCCC – James and the Moffitt Cancer Center in Tampa, Florida. The idea was simple but unique in the world of cancer research. “The realization was, no matter big we or any other comprehensive cancer center becomes, no one center will find the answer,” Walker says. “The answer will come through collaboration and big data.”
Big data is the use of people and computers to analyze massive amounts of information to detect trends and patterns.
Other cancer centers and hospitals quickly recognized the potential value of ORIEN, which has grown to 17 member organizations and has enrolled more than 180,000 patients, a number expected to increase by 50,000 a year. “There are several more cancer centers that want to join,” Walker says. “But we’re still evolving and adding new members slowly.”
Collecting and sharing data from such a large pool of cancer patients allows physicians and researchers to match these patients to targeted treatments for their specific cancer, enroll eligible participants in potentially life-saving clinical trials and speed up the timeline for the development of new cancer drugs and treatments. “The operative words in ORIEN are ‘information exchange,’” Walker says. “The member organizations can mine the ORIEN for the information they need, and pharmaceutical companies can find more patients faster for their clinical trials, and speed up drug development and approval.”
Walker is the chair of ORIEN’s business and operations work group. This continues his long and successful career of combining cancer research and business administration. His undergraduate degree from Pennsylvania State University is in biochemistry, and Walker then spent the next several years working in a cancer lab at the University of Pittsburgh Cancer Institute. He earned a master’s degree in business administration at the University of Pittsburgh, and has put his degree to work ever since in leadership positions at the University of Pittsburgh Cancer Institute, Roswell Park Cancer Research Institute in Buffalo, and at the OSUCCC – James. He’s an expert at running the day-to-day operations of a large cancer center and getting researchers and doctors the resources they need to succeed. “I think my background gives me an appreciation for what our researchers and doctors do, and how difficult and challenging it is and how challenging it is to find funding,” Walker says, adding that, “research is expensive, but the payoff for patients is tremendous.”
Walker was the associate director of the OSUCCC – James from 2001 to 2007, then went to Roswell Park, where he served as executive vice president. He returned to the OSUCCC – James in 2010, recruited by Michael A. Caligiuri, MD, director of the OSUCCC and CEO of The James.
“It was an opportunity to do what I was doing at Roswell, but at a much larger cancer center,” he says. “And, at the time, the planning for the new James hospital [was] underway, which was very exciting.”
Over the ensuing years, Walker has played a key role in implementing many of the big ideas and programs envisioned by Caligiuri, including ORIEN. “Mike is a visionary leader, and I think our skill sets are complimentary,” he says.
Here’s how ORIEN works:
Cancer patients at the member organizations are asked to voluntarily enroll in Total Cancer Care® (TCC), a standardized system developed by Moffitt for tracking and storing a patient’s data. Each patient’s de-identified information becomes part of the ORIEN repository and includes clinical data, blood tissue samples and tumor samples that are genetically sequenced to determine the specific mutations that caused the cancer. Patients also agree to allow the hospital where they were treated to contact them, even years later, when new drugs and/or treatments are developed that could fight their cancers in the event of a relapse.
“We found that patients want this – they want to be part of our research to find cures, so much so that about 94 percent of our patients are part of ORIEN,” Walker says. “We’re at the stage now where we have the numbers to be unique and beneficial in cancer research.”
For example, not all lung cancers are the same. “If you take 50 cases of lung cancer, only one or two may respond to a particular drug that attacks their particular mutation, and another one or two may respond to a different drug and so on down the line,” Walker says.
Finding the specific drug that fights a specific mutation is known as precision medicine and is a growing field of cancer research and treatment. Big data is the fuel that propels precision medicine forward.
Another example of the power of ORIEN is an increase in the efficiency of finding patients for clinical trials. This can sometimes take years, slowing the process of testing and getting approval for new, life-saving drugs. ORIEN can identify potential patients for clinical trials in seconds.
Because of this, ORIEN is a valuable tool for pharmaceutical companies. Four have already paid a subscription fee for access to the de-identified ORIEN patient information in order to find candidates for their clinical trials. Walker says, these subscription fees help cover the costs of genetically sequencing the tumor samples of ORIEN patients.
Cancer research has always been Walker’s passion. Over the years, it’s become more and more personal.
“I lost my father to a rare form of gallbladder cancer, one that’s still incurable, and my mother is a lung cancer survivor,” he says.
This is one of the many reasons Walker is so optimistic about the potential of ORIEN.
“We’re creating the leading edge of research,” he said. “When I talk to researchers and investigators about ORIEN, they become energized and excited about the potential, and it’s really important to be out in front and developing something that’s a game changer.”