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The Big Challenge… With Lauren Leiman

With the ever-increasing potential of new technology and the exponential growth of the life sciences field, researchers are always running into new problems to solve. In this interview series, we get scientists’ opinions on the ‘Big Challenge’ in their field and the steps being taken to address it. From new and unique hurdles to fresh takes on common problems, we dive into the complexities of the research landscape.

In this interview, we chat to Lauren Leiman (Executive Director, BLOODPAC) about the big challenge in the field of liquid biopsy and cancer diagnostics.

FLG: What is your background and current role?

Lauren: I’m currently the Executive Director of the Blood Profiling Atlas in Cancer (BLOODPAC), a consortium focused on accelerating the development of safe and effective liquid biopsy technologies for cancer patient benefit. Our membership consists of over 60 regulatory, industry, academic and nonprofit institutions, all of whom work together though our collaborative infrastructure to develop standards and protocols, organize and coordinate research studies, and operate the BLOODPAC Data Commons (BPDC) to support the exchange of raw and processed data generated by the global liquid biopsy community.

Prior to running BLOODPAC, I was the Senior Director of External Partnerships on the White House Cancer Moonshot Taskforce during the Obama Administration. I’ve also worked in philanthropy, fundraising and global investment. I hold an MBA in International Business at the University of North Carolina, and an MS in Public Relations and Corporate Communications from NYU.

FLG: What is the big challenge in your field?

Lauren: Cancer is a continuum and liquid biopsy technology is being well-applied to help match patients to treatments targeting their types of cancer. The big challenge is developing these technologies to leverage their use in the early detection and screening space.

One of the biggest developments of the last few years in the liquid biopsy field has been the development of assays for cancer early detection and screening (ED&S). These ED&S assays hold immense promise, particularly for cancers that are typically diagnosed late because of lack of screening tests and latency of symptoms. If you can identify cancer early then you may be able to treat it better, faster and more effectively. Several ED&S assays are currently in late-stage development or clinical trials, and a major ongoing challenge in the field is generating the clinical data to show that these tests are effective and creating a roadmap to bring blood-based cancer screening to patients without exacerbating existing health disparities.

FLG: Why should people care about this challenge?

Lauren: All of us will be affected by cancer in some way throughout our lives, whether as a personal diagnosis or through family and friends’ illnesses. We know there is a significant survivorship difference between early and late diagnosis, so it is imperative to diagnose as early as possible to help more people survive their disease. There are currently too many gaps in detection and too great a burden on patients to get screened with existing approaches, and it is incumbent on us to lower those barriers.

When it comes to screening for cancer, the tests currently recommended by the US Preventive Services Task Force only cover four cancers (breast, cervical, colorectal and lung), representing less than half of all US cancer cases. We have no screening tests that are recommended for asymptomatic individuals for most cancers, including some of the most lethal cancers, and low adoption of these screening guidelines means that only 14% of cancers are detected through a preventative screen. Many individuals with cancer are diagnosed in later stages after symptoms appear, significantly reducing the chance of survival. ED&S tests are poised to change that by enabling significantly earlier detection, more effective treatment plans, and ultimately better outcomes for patients with cancer.

FLG: What is being done to tackle this issue, or what should be done?

Lauren: Being told you might have cancer places an enormous emotional and financial burden on patients. We need to make sure that early cancer screening tests are as clinically accurate as possible, to minimize false positives and ensure no one needs to go through follow-up screening unnecessarily.  At the same time, we want to make sure we don’t miss any individuals who truly do have the beginnings of cancer. BLOODPAC has been very active in working on developing clinical validation standards to this end.

We have also convened a working group on liquid biopsy accessibility, which focuses on identifying, understanding and mitigating the barriers that prevent individuals from accessing these innovative tests. It is well-documented that availability of precision medicine technologies like liquid biopsy is heavily influenced by social determinants of health such as race, socioeconomic status and education level. We want to ensure that the rollout of ED&S assays, which have such tremendous beneficial potential, does not perpetuate existing disparities and reaches all communities in need.

What would be your advice to people breaking into the field?

Lauren: I would say to look for opportunities to collaborate across the field and learn from other people. We’re very proud that BLOODPAC has offered professionals who are passionate about advancing this technology the space to collaborate and solve industry-wide problems. It’s been really great to see the cross-pollination of ideas and the relationships that are built. Any early-career professionals should try to get involved in cross-industry initiatives and take every opportunity to learn from diverse experts in the field.

Want to hear more? Lauren Leiman will be joining us at the Festival of Genomics and Biodata in Boston this October! You don’t want to miss out – tickets are free for 90% of attendees, so grab yours now.