Kensington Cancer Survivor Drives Medicine With Big Data

Meet the man leading a new technology-based initiative at the National Institutes of Health

Photo by Skip Brown

When Eric Dishman talks, he sounds more like a Silicon Valley executive than a leader in a government-led targeted medicine research program. He peppers his conversations with technology terms such as “big data,” “iterative platform development” and “interoperability.” 

The 49-year-old Kensington resident works at the National Institutes of Health (NIH), heading up the new Precision Medicine Initiative’s All of Us Research Program. So far, Congress has authorized about $1.5 billion for the 10-year program that aims to collect biomedical information from about 1 million Americans in order to better customize disease prevention and treatments. 

If anyone had the experience to lead this project, it was Dishman, who was recruited by NIH Director Francis Collins. Says Dishman, “I had no plans to leave Portland [Oregon]. I loved my job [at Intel Corp.] and my farm. But at the same time, I thought I am one of the early prototype patients for precision medicine, and it saved my life.” 

Dishman taught himself computer programming as a teenager in North Carolina, where, at 19, he was diagnosed with renal cell carcinoma. That’s when his interest in technology melded with health. He met his wife, Ashley, during his time as a premed student at the University of North Carolina. They moved to Salt Lake City in 1992, and Dishman studied communication at the University of Utah. His interest in patient-doctor communication had become his passion. He soon was creating user-friendly health technologies at Interval Research Corp., a Palo Alto, California, think tank co-founded by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen. Then he led Intel’s health technology efforts for almost a decade. While at Intel, he and Ashley moved to Portland and bought a farm.

By 2011, Dishman was dying of his kidney disease. After years of chemotherapy, the cancer had slowly spread from his left kidney to his right. He thought he was taking his last business trip as a leader of Intel’s health strategy and solutions group, meeting with a genome-sequencing company in San Diego. “I don’t mean to be overly sentimental,” he remembers telling a colleague on the trip, “but I have outlived [my kidney cancer], but not for much longer, and you won’t see me again.” 

An executive in San Diego offered to map Dishman’s genes to demonstrate the company’s technology. Dishman sent some healthy and cancerous tissue to the company, which asked to not be identified in this article. Two weeks later he received two terabytes of data and delivered it to his team of cancer doctors. 

Dishman’s doctors had never used a patient’s genome to determine a treatment plan. Within seven months, the team concluded that his body would respond to a pancreatic cancer drug. By 2012 he was cancer-free and receiving a kidney transplant from a fellow Intel employee. “I said to my wife when I woke up [from the transplant] that I will spend the rest of my life trying to figure out how to make the kind of precision care that I had access to available to everybody,” Dishman says.

The nationwide rollout of the project, which President Barack Obama announced in 2015, is expected later this year. Dishman knows what he’s up against. There are the organizational, structural and technical challenges. Then he’ll have to find a way to recruit participants who will submit their information to the NIH through mobile apps or NIH-designated health providers. 

“By collecting this data at such a magnitude, we will get a glimpse and understanding of rare diseases, the impact of the environment, the impact of health disparities, that we never could before because the study size samples weren’t large enough,” Dishman says. “We’ll learn how to design custom prevention strategies so that people will stay well and not get sick in the first place.” 

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