Avera Health, Sema4 join forces on precision cancer care

By Jenni Spinner

- Last updated on GMT

(FatCamera/iStock via Getty Images Plus)
(FatCamera/iStock via Getty Images Plus)

Related tags Precision medicine Data management preclinical Cancer Oncology

The regional US healthcare system will collaborate with the health intelligence specialist to advance precision medicine focused on oncological care.

Avera Health—a regional healthcare system serving approximately 300 locations in the US Midwest—has announced a collaboration with patient-centric health intelligence solutions firm Sema4. The initiative reportedly will focus on advancing oncology care, enabling patients and providers within Avera Health’s network to benefit from data-driven insights (derived using Sema4’s Centrellis health intelligence platform) informing precision cancer treatments.

To learn more about the partnership (and how it stands to benefit patients, providers, and other stakeholders, Outsourcing-Pharma spoke to key players in the collaboration:

  • Casey Williams, chief scientific officer for cancer research with Avera Health
  • William Oh, chief medical science officer at Sema4
  • Michelle Zimmerman, general manager of oncology solutions and emerging markets with Sema4.

OSP: Could you please share an overview of Avera—who you are, key capabilities, patients/regions you serve, and what sets you apart from other care organizations in this sphere?

CW: Avera Health is an integrated health system based in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, serving SD and surrounding areas of Minnesota, Iowa, Nebraska, and North Dakota. Avera employs more than 19,000 at 315 locations that include 37 hospitals, primary and specialty care clinics, and senior living facilities in addition to home care and hospice, sports and wellness facilities, home medical equipment outlets, and more. Avera offers 60 medical specialties with signature patient care programs that include oncology, bone marrow transplant, cardiology, solid organ transplant, orthopedics, gastroenterology, and behavioral health.

As a mission-driven health care ministry, Avera carries on the legacy of its sponsors, the Benedictine and Presentation Sisters, delivering care in an environment guided by values of compassion, hospitality, and stewardship. Avera has had a Precision Oncology team for almost 10 years and the organization has invested heavily in the technologies and personnel to bring these services to the people we serve. Few organizations have the overall experience, expertise, physician buy-in, and commitment to bringing precision medicine to a largely rural and often underserved population.

OSP: Please share detail about the notable work Avera has conducted in oncological research/clinical care, and any landmarks/milestones in your history of precision medicine work prior to this partnership.

CW: Avera has been a cancer care leader in our region for four decades, and all six Avera Cancer Institute centers are accredited by the American College of Surgeons Commission on Cancer as an Integrated Health Network. In addition, we are pending full certification as an ASCO QOPI integrated health network.; this is a testament to Avera’s ongoing quality measurement, improvement, and performance.

We utilize a service line approach to unite our six oncology programs across our broad geographic footprint. Avera launched South Dakota’s first and only bone marrow transplant program. This FACT accredited program is now known as the Avera Transplant and Cellular Therapy Program

Avera’s oncology research can be summarized into three overlapping spheres as follows:

  1. investigator-initiated clinical trials
  2. precision oncology research
  3. traditional cooperative group and industry-sponsored clinical trials.

Avera clinicians in collaboration with our computational and translational scientists have developed multiple investigator-initiated clinical trials with several pharma partners, with a focus on gynecological, breast, and lung cancer. Our work has focused predominantly on early phase trials utilizing novel combinations with an emphasis on therapies in the PI3K/mTOR/AKT and DNA Damage Repair pathways.

We have an ongoing collaboration applying natural killer cells in combination with other drugs in ovarian cancer led by Drs. David Starks and Luis Rojas and look to leverage our work with Sema4 to elucidate additional concepts.

Avera has collaborated with many industry leaders over the last 10 years, including our active participation in the WIN Consortium led by Dr. Benjamin Solomon. Other notable collaborations include our work on the iPredict trial and the numerous contributions of our computational team led by Dr. Tobias Meissner.

Avera has a longstanding history of participating in oncology clinical trials and we are very proud of the professionalism and expertise of our clinical research team. We are dedicated to high quality, a fast start-up, efficient operations, cellular therapy, and Phase I capabilities, and engaged physicians. Our collaboration with Sema4 should further enable us to provide accurate assessments of our capacity to enroll patients with specific molecular alterations.

OSP: How did Sema4 and Avera get together—have you partnered on any projects before?

CW: Avera and Sema4 have been discussing opportunities to work together since November 2019. We have not partnered on any formal large-scale projects prior to now, but have collaborated on several pilot projects and look forward to our upcoming work in oncology. We were introduced to each other by colleagues that had worked with both of us.

OSP: I’m interested in your view of the Centrellis technology—how do you feel about its performance and potential to help your patients, etc.?

CW: We are just in the early stages of utilizing this technology. We are quite excited about the capabilities that we have seen to date from Sema4 and the potential to help our patients is hard to quantify; we think this could drastically improve our ability to access and respond to data in real-time and enhance our already high-quality services and care.

OSP: Could you please share an overview of Sema4—who you are, key capabilities, and what sets you apart from other companies working in this sphere?

WO: Sema4 is a patient-centered, health intelligence company engaging with patients, physicians, and health systems. We are transforming healthcare by applying artificial intelligence and machine learning to multidimensional, longitudinal clinical and genomic data to build dynamic models of human health and defining optimal, individualized health trajectories.

There remains a significant chasm between the practice of medicine and the availability of more clinically actionable guidance that improves the standard of care. Sema4 is ideally positioned to change that dynamic by generating the appropriate data to come up with better risk, diagnostic, and therapy matching models, and equally importantly engaging with providers and patients to drive that information into the standard of care.

We differentiate ourselves by creating deep partnerships with health systems to use our tests and solutions to iterate on the data and measure the outcomes so that we are constantly learning.

OSP: What kind of work has Sema4 conducted in oncological research/clinical care, and in precision medicine, prior to this partnership?

WO: Sema4 has developed its “Sema4 Signal” portfolio of solutions to be leveraged individually or as part of a holistic solution for precision oncology care. The Sema4 Signal portfolio features the integration of our germline, somatic, and informatics tools, along with customized services to meet patient needs and to help drive better personalized care. Our tests are approved in all 50 states and have been in active use by oncologists.

Sema4’s research concentrates on structuring multidimensional data collected from our advanced genomic tests and real-world data sources into clinical insights. We use this structured data and our proprietary technology platforms, including bioinformatic pipelines and integrative predictive modeling, to deliver disease mechanisms and identify clinically actionable biomarkers and create products that support patient care, from information-driven genomic tests to digital tools.

We provide this data back to oncologists through portals such as Patient Journey and have been conducting clinical research into cancer outcomes at partner health systems.

OSP: Could you please tell us a bit about your Centrellis technology, how it works, and what makes it especially suited for such a project around precision oncological medicine?

MZ: Cancer care is inadequate the way it is currently delivered. We are at the forefront of enabling and advancing precision oncology care, from prevention to treatment to monitoring for remission. Centrellis, our innovative health intelligence platform, is enabling us to generate a more complete understanding of disease and wellness and to provide science-driven solutions to the most pressing medical needs.

Our Centrellis platform ingests large amounts of clinical data, abstracts, and structures that data using proprietary natural language processing, and provides AI-driven predictive models that can make a meaningful difference in transforming cancer care for oncologists and their patients.

OSP: Is there anything else you’d like to add—about this interesting partnership, Sema4’s work, upcoming announcements you’d like to preview, etc.?

MZ: We believe we offer a compelling value proposition for Avera Health, with our focus on serving local community populations, our track record of delivering predictive insights that support the highest standards of care, and our substantial investment in precision medicine across genomics, informatics, data science and the interpretation and support tools needed to enable uptake. We look forward to collaborating with Avera to accelerate discoveries, helping oncologists provide optimized care to individual cancer patients in real time.

In the long run, the true measure of our success will be less suffering from cancer and ensuring all can benefit from the innovations in treatment and prevention; we look forward to demonstrating those results across Avera Health together. 

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