Leveraging Blockchain To Fight Cancer

Is healthcare ready to fully harness the capabilities of blockchain technology?

Alishba Imran
8 min readJan 6, 2019


One of humanity’s largest problems has been the rise of number of diseases, how they are becoming more difficult to cure. Or in some cases, a proper cure does not exist. Cancer is one of those problems as more than 1.7 million people will be diagnosed with cancer this year in the U.S. alone. Globally, the number of new cancer diagnoses annually will reach 23.6 million by 2030. First let’s understand what cancer is and how it starts.

What is Cancer?

While many people think cancer is a disease in itself, its really just a broad term which refers to the abnormal growth of cells in a specific part(s) of the body.

During an average lifetime:

Cells body break down -> new ones are created. All of this is controlled by myriad genes in the body but these genes themselves undergo several mutations. Mutations in genes could increase the cells production levels beyond normal and this is the main cause for cancer. The challenge in finding a cure for cancer lies in identifying which mutation is responsible for a particular cancer.

Where does Blockchain come in?

Blockchain has found it’s way to the mainstream technology and financial applications, but it has so much more potential. The modern healthcare industry has many unaddressed and inefficient processes that are holding back progress.

Cancer research is huge in the healthcare space where numerous companies are putting in Billions of dollars without getting the desired results. It has recruited hundreds of thousands of people from industries varying from hospitals, non-profits, radiology, and pharma. Yet millions of people still lose their lives to this deadly disease. Blockchain technology can help, but let’s start by understanding the existing problems in the Healthcare Industry.

Problems In The Present Healthcare Industry

  1. Data isolation: The problems of isolation of data is important for data normalization (organization of data), as well for legal and competitive advantage. Many organizations strive to create the genetic and phenotypic data of their own patients to support clinical decision making.
  2. Scalability: Currently scheduling appointments and managing logistics is not the easiest task. There is no way for the customer to go to the doctors office for checkups or to undergo treatments without filling a ton of paperwork.
  3. Security: Like any other data, especially putting medical records of others on a centralized database indicates vulnerability and becomes a major focus of attention for theft, or hacking in most large organizations/institutions.
  4. Data sharing: Data sharing and exchanging between doctors, patients, various institutions and organizations is very difficult and not optimized.
  5. Lack of tools: Data analysis is an under-addressed issue and although AI has developed to make these processes more efficient, the healthcare industry lacks in capitalizing on it.

Most importantly: The Engagement Challenge

Since healthcare is a very active industry, tapping into the potential of patient engagement can be a great way to improve cancer care.

However, stakeholders often disconnected from one another. In many cases, patients are more focused on their diagnosis and are not willing to engage. Oncologists (prevention, diagnosis, and treatment of cancer) too face tough challenges. In 2016, there were 1.7 million cancers diagnosed in the US. That translates into an average of 130 new patients per oncologist.

How Blockchain adoption can help healthcare?

1.Improving data interoperability and record keeping

As blockchain is a distributed database of information, adopting this technology can help health professionals quickly find your medical history and issue an efficient treatment plan.

2.Supply Chain Management

Blockchain adoption would mean keeping track of medical equipment and medicines. By leveraging this system, pharmacies and hospitals can easily keep track of their stock, verify product authenticity, which in turn provides patients with a quicker and safer healthcare experience.

3.Medical Funding

All of us are aware that medical research and testing is expensive. Blockchain can act as a good investment tool using Initial Coin Offerings (ICOs), which can also be leveraged to fund research into new cures.

4.Cryptocurrency, payments, insurance and price benefits

Due to increasing demand, we can see healthcare institutions accepting crypto-based payments. Blockchain can help to keep track of all payments to reduce fraud and human error. But also, millions of people rely on medical insurance. Implementing blockchain technology here can help to quicken payouts and provide a smoother experience for all patients worldwide.

There are a few companies that are already doing work to help with cancer treatments using blockchain. A few that I will be exploring are:

  1. Camelot ITLab
  2. IBM Watson Health
  3. Watson for Oncology
  4. Memphis

Solution #1: Camelot ITLab

Companies such as Camelot ITLab have been developing blockchain platforms that can aid in cancer treatments. The Germany-based company founded the hypertrust Patient Data Care, and its hypertrust X-Chain solution is being used in CAR-T cell immunotherapy treatments which is a type of treatment in which a patient’s T cells (a type of immune cell) are changed in the laboratory so they will bind to cancer cells and kill them.

How Hypertrust X-Chain works

In the application developed by CAMELOT, the focus is on the patient. A closed-loop supply chain is used for collecting the cells, processing them, transporting them between the stakeholders, and returning the ‘right cells’ to the ‘right patients’. With legal data protection guidelines, the patients data is made available for the therapy process on the basis of the blockchain technology by means of a decentralized data storage. All data transactions take place exclusively between verified participants and are immutable and consistently stored by means of encryption in the blockchain.

Solution #2: IBM Watson Health

Computer processing has become an important tool for diagnosing and treating cancer because personalized treatments = quick analysis of a patient’s data. IBM’s Watson Health division is joining forces with the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to use blockchain processing to rapidly analyze and exchange patient data.

How IBM Watson Health’s Solution Works

This processing will be done across a variety of platforms, ranging from centralized services to handheld devices used by health care providers and medical researchers.

Blockchain imagines data as a series of blocks, which cannot be altered, but which are associated with other blocks, hence the name. Each block has a timestamp which distinguishes it from previous versions to which it can also be related via a chain. Patients will thus be more able to share their data with healthcare providers and researchers.

The progress and dimension of a cancer often depends on the patient’s individual genetic makeup. That is one reason why researchers are developing targeted therapies in preference to one-size-fits-all treatments that have been the mainstay of oncology for decades. But for that approach to work properly, a lot of computer power must be brought to bear to match a patient to the appropriate, individualized treatment regimen that has the best chance to send his or her cancer into remission. Researchers will be able to rapidly and develop such procedures and test them, finding the best ones that can be taken to market in less time than has hitherto been the case.

Solution #3: Watson for Oncology

Watson for Oncology combines leading oncologists’ deep expertise in cancer care with the speed of IBM Watson to help clinicians as they consider individualized cancer treatments for their patients.

Watson for Oncology is a solution that is fueled by information from relevant guidelines, best practices, and medical journals and textbooks. The solution assesses information from a patient’s medical record, evaluates medical evidence, and displays potential treatment options ranked by level of confidence, always providing supporting evidence. The oncologist can then apply their own expertise to identify the most appropriate treatment options.

Key features:

  • Extract key attributes from a patient’s medical record
  • Evidence-backed treatment recommendations
  • Oncology domain knowledge
  • Patient-centric insights

Solution #4: Memphis

The FedEx Institute of Technology has announced a partnership with Good Shepherd Pharmacy to design a blockchain infrastructure that will help cancer patients get quicker access to vital medications.

How Memphis’s Solution Works

This is done by designing an infrasturcture which retrieves unused medication from cancer patients. In this way, it is possible to pass them to disadvantaged patients that are not able to afford them. By using distributed ledger technology it will be possible to distribute medical information which is confidential.

Exciting Future: AI Bank on Blockchain

Most recently, the rise of Artificial Intelligence (AI), machine learning especially neural networks is becoming huge as it can simulate human thought patterns. They can then apply their more efficient brains than humans to solve issues that like medicine or cryptography.

If a connection between AI and Blockchain is made, AI can make an impact in cancer research where researchers have already created a convolutional neural network capable of distinguishing between dangerous skin marks and harmless ones.

This neural network can accurately detected skin cancer from imagery at a 95% rate compared to the experts 87%.

The benefits of AI in this field are obvious but there is a current issue which can be fixed by Blockchain.

-AI is also more resource-intensive: researchers can’t afford the use of their computers due to the nearly prohibitive costs of maintaining a centralized source of processing power for the amount of time needed for analysis.

To put things into perspective, for just two years ago it took 26 hours.

Blockchain or Distributed Ledger Technologies (DLT) can offer a solution with more effective resource-consolidation and dissemination, which can help AI do more by being a reliable source of power to draw from.

Based on everything that has been outlined so far, it seems like blockchain technology can definitely improve, if not completely change the health industry.

A study has shown that 56% of healthcare executives are planning to adopt the technology by 2020.

So what does this mean?

It’s not exactly the “right now” that excites me about Blockchain but its the potential what does.

Blockchain will be a “new way” of living life which represents a preference to work together, unified in resources and thought under a shared vision.

These are just some of the ways how Blockchain is currently being used in cancer but as we see the adoption of blockchain increasing, we can see new connections and applications being especially with a huge disease like Cancer.

For the next few months, I’ll be exploring this industry and these applications. As I’m exploring these fields, I hope to develop my own DApp in the space!

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Alishba Imran

Machine learning and hardware developer working on accelerating problems in robotics and renewable energy!