5 Questions with Reed Jobs

Emerson Health’s director on working with entrepreneurs, researchers, and patients to accelerate cancer research.

As developments in cancer research accelerate, Emerson Collective is expanding its work to aid cancer research and treatment. Through philanthropic giving, investment, and partnerships, Emerson Health is working to help entrepreneurs and researchers tackle some of the biggest challenges impeding meaningful progress in tackling this disease. Reed Jobs, health portfolio director, shares insight into Emerson’s multi-pronged approach, why he’s optimistic about cancer treatment, and what he envisions for the future.

What is Emerson’s approach to cancer research, and how is that strategy different from other funding organizations?

Emerson’s strategy is to accelerate the development of new therapeutic options for cancer patients by acting as a bridge between leading researchers in the lab and innovative companies with the resources to advance this research in the clinic.

We are different because while most other players in this space focus on philanthropy or investment, we are able to do both. We provide support for researchers across the country who are focusing on early detection as well as immunology and metabolic targeting in cancer therapy. As a connector we will be able to provide support for these researchers as they work to advance their therapies by forming companies or collaborating with peers to conduct key clinical studies that lay the foundation for a new company.

How would you define success? Is your goal to cure cancer?

I believe that human cells will always have a risk of becoming cancerous. In that sense, we won't ever have a cure for cancer. But the problem with cancer, to me, is that it kills you. So I define success as diminishing the mortality of cancer.

A good analog for this work is coronary health. Fifty years ago, we largely only dealt with cardiovascular disease during a coronary event, such as a heart attack or stroke. Today, treatments have shifted from managing disease when major events happen, to monitoring and preventing disease progression as a whole. Instead of waiting to get a heart attack, you monitor your cholesterol, you can get stents, you can take statins, you can have bypass surgery, you can change your diet and lifestyle—you deal with all the problems before you ever have a heart attack or develop cardiovascular disease.

Similarly, cancer is currently treated after disease manifestation, in that we often don't treat it until it reveals itself as an illness. But in the future, I believe your potential for getting sick from cancer will be something that you'll be able to track and keep in check. If doctors can intervene earlier across the board to combat cancer, I believe we will see commensurately lower mortality. Early diagnosis of cancers like prostate cancer, breast cancer, and colon cancer has already given us huge decreases in mortality. There are many more gains to be had here.

Do you see this work as a natural progression for Emerson Collective?

Absolutely. The healthcare space, despite great advances, remains fundamentally unequal in delivery—meaning that while there is equity in terms of scientific research, as advancements in medical research theoretically benefit all—the tangible benefits of this research are not distributed in an equitable way. In many ways Emerson is well-positioned to help combat this inequity: On the research side we are positioned to help move research from the lab to the clinic, and on the patient side, we’re positioned to engage directly with patients, empower them by democratizing some of the research, and give them tools they haven't had before.

The potential power of patients contributing more to cancer research and development by choosing to donate their own medical data has been acknowledged but not yet fully tapped. This lack of progress is not due to anyone's bad intentions—everyone we've met working in oncology wants medical research to keep progressing and to ensure the benefits of the research are shared equitably—but the process shouldn’t have so many prohibitive barriers for people who want to donate. We can demystify the process, make more information available to patients, and we believe that doing so will enhance the experience of both patients and researchers.

We know that interoperability—the ability to seamlessly transfer health records from one institution to another institution—is a big challenge in healthcare. Do you envision a world in which all patient data is open source? Based on your own experience, do you think patients want everyone to have access to their data?

It's not about the data being open source, it's about the data being in the control of the patients. I feel strongly that data should belong to patients, and they can do whatever they please with it.

Many patients do want their data to count—they want it to go to good use, to be in the right hands, and studied for posterity. There is little comfort given to a patient when their data is just siloed in a single institution. Many patients, particularly at the end of their lives, don't want their experience to be forgotten. They want it to count for something.

What’s difficult now, and what I find disturbing, is that while, legally, patients do have control over how their own data is used, as a practical matter, the system is not designed to empower patients. Most electronic health records are designed to maximize ease in billing, not ease for patients—or for doctors for that matter—so there isn't an incentive to make data interoperable. So, do I see a world where it's open source? I see a world where patients can move their records wherever they want and have control over them instantaneously.

What excites you most about the cancer-research space right now? What’s on the horizon?

What excites me most is speed. This has happened before with certain areas of research—there’ve been golden ages of physics, of vaccinology and virology, etc. But I can't think of any other time when it's been happening all across the board. Serious changes in computational power are transforming how we deal with everything, from radiology, to genomics, to ways we find patients for clinical trials.

In the last 10 years or so, the entire research paradigm has really shifted, and the entire industry is quite optimistic: Success with immunotherapy drugs and certain cancer therapeutics is extraordinary. The industry has really opened up in the last couple of years from a research point of view, and we're seeing this now in newly approved drugs.

It's hard to predict what’s on the horizon. I can't tell you what's going to work and what's not. But so much is changing so rapidly that I can't imagine the space resembling what it was 10 years ago, 10 years from now.