According to the American Cancer Society, approximately 1.7m people received cancer diagnoses in the US last year. Those patients and the doctors caring for them are interested in finding treatment and developing new therapies.
Belong.Life is a network that seeks to connect cancer patients with appropriate clinical research projects. Outsourcing-Pharma (OSP) recently spoke with Keren Barsky, head of clinical trial field at Belong.Life, about the innovative ways in which the company uses technology to connect oncology patients with clinical studies.
OSP: Could you please tell us about Belong.Life—how the company got started, who the team is, who your clients are and what makes you stand out?
KB: The story behind Belong is, unfortunately, one of personal loss; in 2015, Eliran Malki, Irad Deutsch and Ohad Rubin founded the company after each lost close relatives to cancer. They wanted to make sure that people battling cancer had access to the information they needed exactly when they needed it.
In just a few short years, our first app, Belong - Beating Cancer Together, became the world’s largest and fastest-growing digital cancer platform – it is now used by hundreds of thousands of patients, caregivers and health professionals.
Building on that success, we have developed additional social networks for managing and navigating treatments and diseases. We do this using our proprietary mobile, AI and machine learning technology. Our solutions currently include Belong-Beating Cancer Together, BelongMS, CoronApp, IQVIA’s OPE (Orchestrated Patient Engagement) solution and other custom Patient Engagement Platforms (PEPs).
Our customers include advocacy groups, governments, universities, healthcare providers, and research organizations.
What makes us stand out? Our users gain access to free features such as a medical binder, treatment tools, a clinical trial matching service and doctors and professional experts who are available to answer their questions, openly or anonymously. We focus on uncovering key trends and patterns that can help improve global care by delivering actionable insight into patient journeys.
OSP: Could you please share how AI can be highly useful in tackling clinical trial challenges, including obstacles associated with trial matching?
KB: One of the reasons Belong was founded was because of the difficulty in finding relevant clinical trials for patients and their family members. There is a lot of great research taking place around the world, but during the difficult disease journey, it’s easy to miss trials, even if they are happening around the corner from your house.
Now, patients, physicians and organizations running trials know that Belong is the place they can turn to in order to find one another.
Today, only about 10% of cancer patients participate in clinical trials. Many say that they were never informed about relevant trials, while some studies suggest that concerns about the risks of unproven treatments keep them away.
Another challenge is that the majority of primary care providers refer their patients to cancer specialists without discussing clinical trials with their patients. Many of these doctors are fully unaware that their patients are even eligible for available clinical trials.
Artificial intelligence (AI) helps this process greatly. For our clinical trial matching tool, we use machine learning and clinical trial-specific Natural Language Processing (NLP) algorithms to analyze all available trials around the globe in real-time from databases such as the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the Clinical Trials Transformation Initiative (CTTI).
Our AI technology processes the opted-in patient’s medical information anonymously, verifies the relevance of clinical trials in the database, and produces a list of trials specific to their condition from all over the world (or according to their preferences).
This greatly simplifies the medical lingo and the application process, allowing patients to be fully aware of their options. Physicians perform this task manually, but AI efficiently processes enormous amounts of data with similar or even greater success rates. We are proud to report that our team has provided a clinical trial service to more than 8,000 cancer patients.
OSP: I’m interested in learning the Beating Cancer Together app. How does it work? Could you share how things have gone since it’s launched?
KB: Belong – Beating Cancer Together is our flagship application. We are very proud that it is currently the world’s largest and fastest-growing digital cancer platform. It’s an all-in-one patient engagement platform including a digital binder, treatment managing tools and more.
The content our users receive on the app is hyper-personalized to their specific cancer type and stage, as well as preferences. Users see relevant information for their individual cancer journey.
We also use our AI and machine learning technology to deliver actionable insights to health organizations. Scientific research based on real-world data acquired through Belong – Beating Cancer Together has been published and presented at leading health events. This data is anonymous and aggregated, safeguarding our users’ privacy at all times.
OSP: I understand you launched an MS app—could you talk about that app, too? Why an app for that particular disease is important, and in general what the challenges are associated with MS trial recruitment.
KB: Unfortunately, around 2.3 million people live with MS worldwide. The disease attacks the central nervous system and can cause symptoms such as extreme fatigue, problems with vision or balance and gaps in memory. Lifetime costs for a patient in the USA have been estimated to exceed $4 million, creating a need for access to the latest updated information about treatments; because of this, we created BelongMS. The app has already had a far-reaching and fast adoption.
BelongMS, just like Belong – Beating Cancer Together, delivers personalized content to its users along with a clinical trial matching service, a social network with custom groups for different MS challenges, and a medical binder manager. We also give patients the opportunity to directly connect with medical professionals, including neurologists, radiologists, urologists, and others who can answer their questions in our professional groups on the app.
There are numerous challenges associated with finding a relevant clinical trial for MS patients. Most of the time they are either unaware of their options, or don’t have the time to discuss them with their medical team or doctor.
Additionally, not all MS specialists are aware of every clinical trial currently available to their patients, because the trials are constantly evolving. Since clinical trials may be available in different medical centers, or even other countries, not everyone knows they exist. This prevents patients from understanding all the treatment options available to them.
OSP: Can you please talk about the topics that are discussed in the MS clinical trial matching groups?
KB: Patients can ask whatever they like in the group. Sometimes users want to know something about a specific clinical trial, or about a certain type of available treatment being offered in a clinical trial.
We see several key topics and questions discussed in these groups, including:
- Which clinical trials may be relevant to me in my area?
- Which new drugs are in development for my type of MS?
- Which treatments in clinical trials can help me with my symptoms?
- Are there any stem cell trials that I can join?
- My physician doesn't believe in clinical trials. What can I do?
- What clinical trials are taking place in my city or vicinity?