How Big Data Can Help Fight Cancer Across the Developing World

By Kyu Rhee, MD
Kyu Rhee, MD, Chief Health Officer, IBM
Kyu Rhee, MD, Chief Health Officer, IBM

While emerging economies across the world are exploding, the sad fact is that chronic disease is taking its toll.

As the middle class grows across Africa, Asia and South America, people are living longer and also suffering from obesity and the effects of a more sedentary lifestyle. That translates into growing death rates from chronic disease.

In most African countries, cardiovascular disease is now the second leading cause of death after infectious diseases such as malaria and tuberculosis. It has been estimated that between 1990-2020, the burden of heart disease will double. Diabetes across the Middle East and North Africa has jumped 87 percent between 1990-2012, and stroke by 35 percent.

Approximately 70 percent of all cancer deaths occur in developing nations, according to the World Health Organization. That number is rising: for example, cancer is expected to increase in Sub-Saharan Africa by 85 percent by 2030. But that figure is only an estimate, since less than 1 percent of the region’s population is covered by cancer registries.

Cancer registries are used to collect accurate data across large populations. Advanced analytics technology can be applied to uncover insights so physicians and governments can save lives with better treatments, research and public health policies. While cancer registries are taken for granted in developed countries, they barely exist in emerging economies. The comparison is staggering:

Today at the World Cancer Leaders’ Summit in Cape Town, IBM announced that it is working with the Union for International Cancer Control to create the world’s largest and most comprehensive clinical dataset on cancer patients by building cancer registries in developing nations. IBM will donate its Big Data and analytics technology and expertise to the project, which will begin in Sub-Saharan Africa and expand throughout the continent and other developing regions including Southeast Asia and Latin America.

This is just the latest example of IBM’s innovations to address the world’s cancer crisis. IBM’s Watson cognitive computing technology is advancing evidence-based treatment and research.

IBM Research has developed a microfluidic probe with a Swiss hospital to enhance cancer diagnosis, and nanotechnology to improve treatment of breast cancer with the Institute of Bioengineering and Nanotechnology. And in collaboration with the Kenyan government, IBM developed a plan to promote cervical cancer screening.

One hundred years ago, life expectancy in the U.S. was not that different that what it is today in Sub-Saharan Africa. Over the past century, we’ve gained 30 years life expectancy in places like the U.S. and the U.K. With the world becoming flatter, we’ll see the same kinds of gains in life expectancy across developing nations in merely 20-30 years.

And with improved education and innovations in population health and treatments, we can slow the deadly march of chronic disease across the developing world.


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