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The Promise of Personalized Cancer Vaccines and the Need for Innovation at Scale

When we think of innovation we often think of the big idea or the breakthrough product that changes everything, but often the truly groundbreaking story isn’t about the idea or product itself, but about how that idea or product scaled beyond its few originators to benefit hundreds of thousands, millions, and even billions of people. This is innovation at scale. Without scale an important innovation is just an interesting idea. Add scale and it has the power to significantly influence and even change the world.

In science and medicine we use the phrase from “bench to bedside” to describe the journey required to scale an innovation from the laboratory to the people who will benefit from it. This journey is typically filled with pitfalls that can prevent even the most promising of ideas from successfully scaling and reaching the market. Overcoming such barriers to scale often requires further innovation at different stages of the product value chain – from idea to launch – that too often stands in the shadow of the big idea or breakthrough product itself. However, in most circumstances the product would surely not have succeeded if it weren’t for this often unsung innovation that helped the product to scale. For this reason, executives and product owners who aim to deliver breakthrough products to market must commit to empowering, inspiring and enabling their teams to “think differently” and innovate along the entire journey from idea to prototype to scale-up and launch of their product.

This story is currently unfolding with what could be one of the most exciting breakthroughs in cancer treatment ever – personalized cancer vaccines that activate a person’s own immune system to specifically target and eliminate cancerous tumors. If successful, this will be a game-changer in cancer treatment with the potential to save millions of lives. Like other big ideas, it faces significant hurdles, not only in proving that it works in multiple cancer types, but also in scaling to benefit the millions of people who are diagnosed with cancer each year.

To put this challenge into perspective, a truly personalized approach to vaccine development completely transforms the traditional one-size-fits-all model in which a vaccine for a specific disease is designed exactly the same and is distributed in bulk to those who need it. With a personalized approach, each vaccine is made to order, based on the specific attributes of each patient’s individual cancer DNA and molecular blueprint. This level of personalization requires an entirely new product value chain and business model: first, a patient’s tumor needs to be biopsied; then it needs to be sent to a diagnostic testing lab for sequencing to identify the specific cancer mutations and antigens to target; then a personalized vaccine needs to be designed, developed, manufactured, packaged, delivered, and administered to the individual patient who will benefit from it. To further complicate matters, this all needs to be done quickly – within days or weeks – because cancer does not wait and the earlier a patient is treated the better their outcomes will be. Further, this needs to be done at scale. Currently hundreds of personalized vaccines can be developed annually by a single company, but in order to bring a product like this to market for even just one cancer type, it needs to scale by several orders of magnitude to tens of thousands of vaccines produced each year. And if we want to scale this across the more than one hundred different types of cancer, and the millions of people who are diagnosed with cancer annually, it is easy to see that this is a massive challenge in innovation at scale.

Another factor that serves to amplify this challenge is cost. It is a painful fact, even when we are talking about human life, but cost is a critical factor in determining whether or not a breakthrough medicine successfully reaches the people it is intended to treat. We’d all like to change this but this is the hard truth of our current healthcare system. Not surprisingly, this highly customized approach to developing and delivering personalized cancer vaccines is significantly more expensive than the current standard of care. For this reason, companies innovating in this space must not only scale, they must do so in a way that is economically viable. Further, they must be courageous enough to disrupt the current recurring treatment model, in favor of a model that aspires to treat people with cancer once in order to activate their immune systems to eliminate the cancer.

Sound challenging? It is. Game-changing innovations typically don’t scale easily.

As the personalized cancer vaccine story continues to unfold it is clear that success will not only hinge on whether or not the treatment is effective, but also on whether or not it can scale in a way that is cost-effective and supports the timely delivery of customized treatment to patients. To make this happen the companies developing these treatments will need to innovate well beyond the personalized cancer vaccines themselves, and focus on how to find efficiencies and deliver quality and cost-effective value across the product chain, from development to manufacturing to patient delivery. In our experience at Cantina, this is where some of the most significant breakthroughs are likely to occur, and they are likely to involve advances in tech, this includes advances in computing, machine learning, data storage, and sensor-based tracking technology, among other solutions, that are implemented across the product value chain and help to reduce the time and cost required to deliver personalized cancer vaccines to the people who need them. If successful, this will transform cancer treatment, and I hope that day comes soon – I am sure you do too.

ABOUT CANTINA’S HEALTH, TECH & INNOVATION PRACTICE

Cantina is an innovation, design, and technology consulting firm. We work with companies ranging from high growth start-ups to Fortune 500s to help them deliver and scale their products and services. Cantina’s Health, Tech & Innovation Practice has experience in all major therapeutic areas, including targeted cancer therapeutics. Our team of researchers, designers, software engineers, product strategists, and delivery and implementation experts wake up every day inspired to help our clients develop and scale life-changing innovations. If you are interested in talking with us, please contact us or email the author directly.

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