Internet Commerce Pioneer Seeks to Crack Secretive Culture With Cancer Commons

Xconomy San Francisco — 

[Update 7:10 am 1/5/11] Cancer patients share their personal ups and downs all the time on Facebook and who knows how many Internet message boards. Now if one Silicon Valley entrepreneur gets his way, scientists and physicians will start sharing their experiences in treating cancer in ways that might actually help them come up with better personalized treatment strategies.

Jay “Marty” Tenenbaum, an e-commerce pioneer and cancer survivor, started down this road a couple years ago with a startup in Palo Alto, CA called CollabRx. Now he’s putting a new twist on this idea by using the company’s web-based apps and services to set up an open-source database, called Cancer Commons, to put all kinds of real-time data on how cancer patients with specific tumor types are responding to certain therapies.

For this kind of thing to catch on, it will have to demolish a culture in which researchers hold experimental data close to the vest until they can publish career-making scoops in peer-reviewed journals like Nature or the New England Journal of Medicine. That’s no easy thing to overcome, even if you make the coolest cancer research app ever for a smartphone or a tablet. Many top biologists could care less.

“There are people in life sciences who still get their e-mail read to them by someone,” Tenenbaum says. And while some biologists may change their technology tools quickly, changing the professional culture from one of opaqueness to transparency is the real challenge. “It’s just so deeply ingrained to be competitive. We all talk about collaboration, but it’s almost anathema,” he says.

Tenenbaum, 67, is setting out to make information technology tools that are so useful, so compelling, so irresistible that cancer physicians and researchers will have to use it to stay on the cutting edge of their fields—and to stay relevant to their patients. It’s an audacious dream, but Tenenbaum has been ahead of a very big curve once before. He was the founder and CEO of Enterprise Integration Technologies, the first company to conduct a commercial Internet transaction, in 1992.

By the late ’90s, Tenenbaum got a personal look at how the world of medicine used (and didn’t use) information technology. He was diagnosed with melanoma, a very difficult to treat and often deadly form of skin cancer. He was lucky—his first round of treatment was successful. But as scientists sequenced the genome and heralded the era of personalized medicine, he was still frustrated by how little of this data was being shared among peers to help develop better drugs in a faster way. There was nothing in biology that worked like an open-source community, which combine brainpower to make software.

Marty Tenenbaum

Marty Tenenbaum

CollabRx was founded in 2008 to develop web-based apps and services that could help connect the necessary players—doctors, researchers, patients, drugmakers. It has raised $5.5 million from angel investors, Tenenbaum says.

For the company, he spent a couple years knocking on doors trying to win more support from nonprofit foundations that support research into rare diseases, in hopes they would provide sustained financing. Essentially, Tenenbaum says he offered them a chance to apply some of their learnings from basic research in a new drug development model, without spending a lot of money on bricks and mortar lab space. No dice. “We needed to engage companies and academics who didn’t want to partner exclusively with CollabRx. They want to play on neutral turf. That’s why set up CancerCommons,” Tenenbaum says.

There’s nothing exclusive about the Cancer Commons—it’s a free and open … Next Page »

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3 responses to “Internet Commerce Pioneer Seeks to Crack Secretive Culture With Cancer Commons”

  1. Roger says:

    I have just been diagnosed with extra nodal marginal zone lymphoma. Apparently it is a rare sub-species of lymphoma. I have a tumor next to my speen and a tumor behind my eye.

  2. Joe Case says:

    Hi Marty,
    Great work, Cancer Commons ,