Varian Medical Systems Inc. has invested $10 million in and inked a collaboration agreement with Cota Inc., a Boston-based curator of oncology clinical data. The radiation oncology company will now offer its customers access to Cota’s oncology real-world analytics and data curation services, which aggregate electronic health record (EHR) data to yield meaningful insights.
Additionally, Cota will work with Varian to develop new decision support tools for the latter’s Intelligent Cancer Care initiative. The program aims to enhance and further personalize cancer treatment and care using advanced technologies like data analytics, machine learning and artificial intelligence.
“This agreement with Cota represents a huge win for our two companies, and also for oncology care providers and researchers,” said Corey Zankowski, senior vice president of oncology software solutions at Palo Alto, Calif.-based Varian. “We believe Cota’s proprietary technology, advanced analytics and deep expertise in organizing complex data will make a significant step toward realizing the goals of Intelligent Cancer Care.”
Such decision support tools could be relevant across the oncology care continuum, Zankowski believes, helping clinicians to quickly decide if a highly personalized therapy makes sense for a particular patient. “Varian will work with Cota to analyze real, de-identified clinical data and develop new clinical decision support tools that are integrated at the point of care,” he told BioWorld.
Varian launched its Intelligent Cancer Care initiative in 2014 with the release of its Rapidplan knowledge-based treatment planning software, a machine learning tool that helps clinicians quickly and consistently develop high-quality radiotherapy treatment plans. Since then, the company has added a number of new products to the portfolio, including an adaptive therapy system powered by artificial intelligence and software-based clinical decision support tools to enhance patient care and operational performance.
Option to buy
The $10 million infusion of new funding in Cota follows two prior investments earlier this year, bringing Varian’s total backing to $20 million. The investment, in the form of a convertible loan, also gives Varian an option to acquire Cota in the future.
Mike Doyle, Cota’s CEO, said the collaboration underscores the two companies’ like-minded approach to oncology, which puts the patient journey first and foremost.
“I think [this] will be a win-win not only for Varian and Cota, but for the patient and the provider and the entire system,” he told BioWorld, adding that real-world data could play a transformative role in future discovery and approvals for certain drugs and procedures.
“We’re very excited to be able to work hand in glove with them going forward, to take advantage of their vast reach not only in the United States but across the globe,” he said.
Cota’s real-world analytics platform enables it to extract information from medical records and create datasets that are increasingly important in drug discovery. For example, one of its real-world analytics tools leverages the power of CNA – copy number alterations – to uniquely identify patients according to their underlying cancer by analyzing phenotypical characteristics of tumors. “Once you do that, then you can create essentially cohorts of patients that, for all intents and purposes, can be treated the same way with regard to cost, regimen and guidelines,” he said.
That toolset gives oncologists a more precise way of treating individual patients, Doyle said. “Now oncologists can answer two fundamental questions at the point of care: How many patients have you treated just like me? And what were their outcomes?” Such information has value for payers as well.
Drug discovery and approval
Through cooperation with the U.S. FDA and other regulators, Cota is also able to create de facto datasets that represent the data and clinical attributes called for in the control group of a clinical trial – raising the prospect that such data could replace a placebo group, sparing late-stage cancer patients the worry of not knowing whether they would receive an experimental drug.
“I think we will greatly speed up drug approval and drug discovery and make the patient journey that much better for not only the patients, but their families,” Doyle said.
In 2019, the FDA signed a collaborative agreement with Cota aimed at enhancing understanding of breast cancer treatment and the patient experience. The agreement is designed to promote the use of precision and is relying on real-world evidence to provide insights beyond the data provided by clinical trials.
While Cota’s primary focus is on cancer, it is also using its expertise to aid the fight against COVID-19. In June, the company joined the COVID-19 Evidence Accelerator program, a joint initiative of Friends of Cancer Research and the Reagan-Udall Foundation for the Food and Drug Administration. The initiative aims to deliver real-world understanding of the novel coronavirus.
Meanwhile, Varian recently won the FDA’s nod to begin a feasibility study of Flash, an experimental treatment modality delivering radiation therapy in ultra-high doses, for the treatment of symptomatic bone metastases.
The Cota collaboration comes on the heels of Varian’s August announcement with Siemens Healthineers AG that those companies will combine in an all-cash transaction valued at $16.4 billion. The deal is expected to close in the first half of 2021 and would give Varian access to new imaging capabilities to enhance its portfolio in cancer diagnosis and treatment.
Zankowski and Doyle both see synergies in potentially combining Varian and Cota.
“We see oncology-specific data curation and analytics services as a key growth area, and one that can enable tremendous improvement in cost-effective patient care,” Zankowski said. “The potential impact in oncology could be substantial and something that patients, advocacy groups, care providers and payers have requested for years.”
Doyle agrees. “The way we structured the partnership … gives us a couple of years to work together and see the kind of value that we create together,” he said. “I fully anticipate that they will in fact exercise their option to buy Cota at some point in the future. I’d be surprised if they didn’t.”