'Game-Changing' Cancer Benefit Launching

SAP will soon be offering employees a first-of-its-kind personalized tumor-analysis and treatment-option benefit. Experts weigh in on its prognosis.

Tuesday, July 1, 2014
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Walldorf, Germany-based SAP will soon be launching a first-ever, company-sponsored cancer-analysis tool that -- if SAP has anything to say about it - could soon become commonplace as an employee benefit.

Called TreatmentMAP and developed by The Woodlands, Texas (U.S.)-based MolecularHealth, it will essentially offer a personalized treatment option to SAP employees fighting cancer -- starting as a pilot in two countries and eventually spreading companywide.

Using next-generation-sequencing genetic testing, TreatmentMap will create tumor analyses and clinical interpretations of the genomic-patient data to help employees' doctors and oncologists establish individualized treatment options in much less time than medicinal trials, such as chemotherapy.

In light of today's personalized-medicine trend, says Dr. Natalie Lotzmann, SAP's chief medical officer, "it's just a matter of time" before other companies adopt similar programs to help their employees with cancer fight the disease with the greatest possible outcome. (Indeed, SAP's own press release about says the company "hopes to convince other employers" to consider offering such a benefit.)

"Receiving a cancer diagnosis is a personal tragedy" that all companies will have to bear at some point, Lotzmann says. "The need for this tool will only increase [and] I believe will one day be the standard for all medical benefits at all companies."

Mind you, this is not a cure. But it could be a game-changer. Huge amounts of data generated from each tumor analysis would be processed with an ultra-fast genome-alignment algorithm -- part of the SAP Genomic Analyzer -- and would be used to assemble the full DNA sequence in three minutes, about 300 times faster than the alignment software previously used. From that data, the tool then immediately matches that specific genetic makeup with all the research available in the world indicating what was tried to treat this particular type of cancer.

"It's a decision-making tool," says Lotzmann, adding that the information attached to it is continually changing and being augmented. "This ensures the cancer patient gets the latest and greatest of treatments, the treatment that has been proven to work best," rather than one physicians or cancer centers must arrive at through trial and error.

So game-changing is this, says Dr. Friedrich von Bohlen, chairman of MolecularHealth, that "with the advent of information-based molecular-genetic diagnosis, cancer can be individually and precisely profiled, and potentially transformed from a terminal to a chronic disease."

And this, he adds, is a win-win, "supporting both the employee and his or her organization during the challenge of working and living with cancer."

In fact, Laura Housman, senior vice president and chief commercial officer in MolecularHealth's Boston office (the company's global headquarters are still in Heidelberg, Germany) sees this cancer-analysis benefit as a "competitive differentiator ... that can have a real impact on the employer and can impact shareholders" as well.

"That your company has the generosity and forethought, and is at the forefront to anticipate these needs going forward, that speaks volumes to current and prospective employees," she says, "and can enhance your reputation in general."

Traditional testing methods are only taking patients so far, says Housman, who agrees more insurers and employers will no doubt be providing something like the new tool SAP is using in the near future in their benefits programs.

"From an employer perspective," she says, "cancer is an increasing burden for both employers and patients." Indeed, the Alexandria, Va.-based American Society for Clinical Oncology anticipates a 45-percent increase in new cancer cases by 2030, and a 35-percent increase between now and 2020 in the number of cancer survivors due to better treatment.

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"You have to figure, a significant number of these people will be employees somewhere," Housman says.

So what should HR leaders be keeping in mind about this latest chapter in the ongoing and never-ending employee-benefits evolution? Both Lotzmann and Housman note that privacy with employees' genetic profiles needn't be a concern, as TreatmentMap facilitates the knowledge share with clinicians and oncologists, but doesn't store the genetic information.

"MolecularHealth is a [Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act]-compliant provider," Housman says, "and this information is only shared between provider and patient -- and as far as payment goes, [the parties] are de-identified."

Though total cost was not discussed, both say early adoptions such as this are always more expensive and should be reduced over time as familiarity and use increase. They also stress the importance of gaining C-level buy-in before jumping on any bandwagon, and making sure HR and benefits leaders are involved.

Of course, as with anything this new, "the clinical efficacy of such tumor analyses needs ongoing study," says Thomas Parry, president of the San Francisco-based Integrated Benefits Institute. 

Matching drugs to patients may still depend on clinical trials, he says, just on a "broader range of people and perhaps of outcomes that are important both to employees and to their employers -- as in absence from work, disability and performance."

The notion that tumor analysis may eliminate trials and experiments, he adds, "ignores the fact that prior research is needed to understand how to get the right match of drugs to patients."


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