By Elizabeth Bailey, Bokang Rabasha & Nour Sharara
Pretend for a moment that you are a doctor working in a resource-limited country. When one of your patients complains of throat pain, you discover a tumor within his vocal cords. In order to treat the cancer, you’ll have to remove his larynx (the organ that allows him to speak and breathe). The surgery is successful, but the patient will need radiation therapy in order to stay cancer-free. The problem? In your country, he will likely wait six months or more for treatment.
We heard this story during a teleconference meeting between Queen Elizabeth Central Hospital in Blantyre, Malawi and Boston non-profit Global Oncology, Inc (GO) whose mission is to bring the best in cancer care to underserved patients around the world. The Boston-based physicians were trying to assist their Malawi counterparts with developing a regimen for the patient in the face of limited medical and surgical resources and lack of radiotherapy.
The meeting brought to light the vast inequities in cancer treatment and the tremendous challenges involved with bringing adequate care to patients in low-resource settings. The situation in Malawi is not the exception; access to treatments like radiotherapy in Africa is unacceptably low, and it’s only one of many infrastructural barriers that contribute to high cancer mortality rates in low- and middle-income countries (LMICs).
Providing cancer treatment is multidisciplinary and complex. It requires a robust healthcare system where adequate facilities (e.g., operating room), access to medications (e.g. chemotherapy, pain control), availability of technologies (e.g., X-rays, pathology labs) as well as cancer specialists (i.e., oncologists, radiotherapists, pathologists, surgeons) are all necessary for optimal treatment.
A recent analysis by the American Cancer Society revealed that the majority of cancer cases (57%) now occur in LMICs, and that 65% of cancer deaths worldwide occur in these countries. Lack of awareness of cancer symptoms, nascent cancer prevention and screening programs leave cancer patients in the developing world at a huge disadvantage.
Despite the launch of new cancer technologies to improve cancer care in developed economies, most are not transferable to LMICs. Issues of access and affordability make solutions in geographies like the U.S. and Europe almost irrelevant in less-developed markets.
With these challenges in mind, the Consortium for Affordable Medical Technologies (CAMTech) at Massachusetts General Hospital Global Health has joined forces with GO to organize a hack-a-thon to catalyze cancer innovations for LMICs. Over the past three years, CAMTech has organized more than a dozen hack-a-thons, many of them in Uganda and India, with the idea that sourcing local innovations will increase the chances of success and adoption. Thanks to an idea from MIT’s student-run organization, Hacking Medicine, the concept brings clinicians, engineers and entrepreneurs together for a two-day event to develop innovations addressing pressing healthcare challenges. The model is simple–but the results are impressive, and can change lives.
The Global Cancer Innovation Hack-a-thon calls upon both those in the Boston community (and the US more broadly), and also end-users – clinicians from LMICs and some cancer patients. Together these participants, supported by a group of experienced mentors, will work intensely over two days to develop novel approaches to preventing, diagnosing and treating cancer in resource-constrained settings.
Still, the hack-a-thon is just the beginning. The process of developing and commercializing health innovations can be very long and arduous, especially when the goal is to bring those technologies into the developing world. In response, CAMTech, GO and their partners will offer post-Hack-a-thon support to participants, including monetary awards and prototype development services for the event winners, as well as access to the CAMTech Innovation Platform and Accelerator Program for all participants.
As the global cancer burden increases, it is up to all of us to change this trajectory. Thanks to the process of co-creation and the hack-a-thon model, we as a collective community have the power to make that a reality.
 Cancer: Africa’s silent killer http://blogs.worldbank.org/health/health/cancer-africa-s-silent-killer January 7th 2016
 Most Of The World's Cancer Cases Are Now In Developing Countries http://www.npr.org/sections/goatsandsoda/2015/12/15/459827058/most-of-the-worlds-cancer-cases-are-now-in-developing-countries December 15th 2015
About the Authors
Director, Consortium for Affordable Medical Technologies (CAMTech), Massachusetts General Hospital Global Health
In 2012, Ms. Elizabeth Bailey joined MGH as the Director of the Consortium for Affordable Medical Technologies (CAMTech), which catalyzes and accelerates medical technology innovation to improve health outcomes in low- and middle-income countries. Prior to MGH, Ms. Bailey spent over a decade as an investment partner at Commons Capital, an impact venture capital fund that invests in early-stage technology companies. Ms. Bailey managed the fund’s health care and education portfolios, and she led the fund’s global health initiative supported by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. She is a strong advocate for leveraging private sector solutions to generate sustainable and widespread public health impact. Ms. Bailey earned a Masters in Public Policy from the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University and a BA from Brown University.
Project Leader, Global Oncology (GO)
Bokang Rabasha received her B.A in Neuroscience from Smith College in 2013. She is currently working as a Research Technician at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Levi Garraway's laboratory. Bokang has been a Project Leader for the non-profit, Global Oncology (GO) since 2014, where she organizes and runs tumour boards between GO and Queen Elizabeth Central Hospital in Malawi.
Nour Sharara has been a Global Oncology volunteer since November 2014, where she leads the Data Outreach efforts for the Global Cancer Project Map. She received her MPH (Global Health) from the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health in May 2015 and is currently a Research Assistant at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute. Nour is committed to reducing the burden of cancer in low- and middle-income countries and her areas of interest include health systems strengthening, monitoring and evaluation and quality improvement.