GE Launches $100M Innovation Project to Fund Breast Cancer Research

General Electric is pouring $100 million into breast cancer research. The project is looking to develop promising, new cancer diagnostic tools and products.

NEW YORK - General Electric is pledging to invest $1 billion in cancer research over the next five years and the company announced an innovation challenge to spur development of cancer diagnostics and treatments.

GE CEO Jeff Immelt launched a six-month $100 million project as part of the company's "healthymagination" initiative at a press event here on Sept. 15. GE plans to fund promising ideas to improve breast cancer diagnostics, Immelt said at the event. Winning ideas will receive $100,000 in seed grants to bring the products and tools to market.

The goal is to help health care professionals better understand tumors associated with triple negative cancer, a type that is less responsive to standard treatments and typically more aggressive. The challenge will also focus on finding molecular similarities between breast cancer and other solid tumors, which would improve early detection, allow more accurate diagnoses and help doctors make treatment decisions, according to GE.

"We want to push the accelerator on innovation and research" on breast cancer treatment, Lisa Kennedy, director of strategic marketing at GE's healthymagination, told eWEEK. "Eight million people die each year of cancer. We feel that is unacceptable," she added.

GE will also invest in research and development programs to expand its suite of technologies for cancer detection and treatment, beginning with breast cancer, Immelt said.

GE envisions "a day when cancer is no longer a deadly disease," but a chronic one that patients can manage with targeted treatment, Immelt said.

While the current initiatives focused on breast cancer, the company plans to expand research initiatives into other types of cancer. Breast cancer was picked because of the sheer number of patients stricken with the disease worldwide and also because GE already had a "strong knowledge" of breast cancer diagnostics, treatment and monitoring, said Kennedy.

Cancer research is at a "tipping point," and what is discovered in the next five years will "change treatment more than anything that has been done in the past 100 years," Kennedy said. The challenge will bring together researchers from around the world to collaborate and share information, "because someone out there already has the answer," she said.

There are several tracks to the challenge, including a data track, Kennedy said. The data track will consider proposals based on analyzing the volume of data that is currently being collected. Oncologists and radiologists told GE that they are frustrated that there's no way for them to look at a cohort of patients and figure out trending data to predict treatment results and what the disease will do next, according to Kennedy.

GE is investing in a "super database" that will consolidate clinical, pathology, therapy and outcomes data in one place to enable analysis and further accelerate innovation. The database would be available in collaboration with leading cancer research, nongovernmental organizations and government organizations.

GE will also look for promising ideas that are unlikely to get traditional funding because they are too early in the stage to have any immediate commercial advantage and the time to market is still several years out, Kennedy said.

A committee of representatives from GE and participating venture capital partner firms will evaluate entrants. Selected entries will be judged by a panel of GE executives, venture capital firms and "health care luminaries," including former Food FDA Commissioner and National Cancer Institute Director Andrew von Eschenbach, Professor of Surgery and Director of the University of Michigan Breast Care Center Lisa Newman, and cancer medicine specialist and Professor of Cancer Medicine at Imperial College Justin Stebbing. The competition is already open to entries, and winners will be announced in the first quarter of 2012, GE said.

"As we saw through the success of the ecomagination challenge, innovation can be transformational, and good ideas that drive change can come from anywhere," said Risa Stack, partner at Kleiner, Perkins and Caulfield & Byers, one of the venture capital firms involved with the challenge.

GE also discussed innovations to improve screening and breast cancer diagnosis, as well as to help doctors identify the right therapy for patients. SenoCase is an ultra-portable mammography device concept that will shrink the traditional system into an affordable unit the size of a suitcase. SenoCase will potentially transform access to breast health screenings for millions of women around the world. While it's still a concept, Kennedy said SenoCase is on the product roadmap and the company expects to have something to market in the next five years.

GE previewed SenoBright, a Contrast Enhanced Spectral Mammography technique that provides more precise identification of breast cancer, which is currently pending clearance by the Food and Drug Administration. The imaging technique combines digital mammography, low- and high-level X-rays and a common contrast agent to better detect incidences of cancer and to select candidates for biopsies. SenoBright will reduce unneeded procedures and improve the doctor's ability to treat patients. Although not available in the United States, GE has installed SenoBright in 17 care centers across Europe and Asia.