What a Forgotten Cure for Cancer Can Tell Us About the Future of Healthcare

The New York Times headline told a fantastic story: a doctor’s treatment of infecting cancer patients with “toxins” had cured more than 100 people during the past 15 years. The therapy was so effective, it was being used in “almost every country where the medical profession is in an advanced state of progress.” That article was published on July 29, 1908.

The doctor who created the therapy, William B. Coley, first noticed in the 1890s that cancer patients who also had infections tended to have better outcomes than those who did not. It wasn’t the first time in human history that the connection between infections curing cancer has been observed. Imhotep, an ancient Egyptian physician who lived 4,600 years ago, recommended patients with tumors make a poultice and then an incision, which would likely lead to an infection, and in some cases, shrinkage or disappearance of the tumor.

But since the results of “Coley’s Toxins,” were inconsistent and the mechanism of action not understood, the medical community first doubted his real-world results, and eventually, turned its attention to newer innovations such as radiation and chemotherapy. It would take another century before what we now call immunotherapy to rise again in prominence as a potential treatment for cancer.

I bring this up to demonstrate how predictions for the future of science and technology are more often wrong than right, in some cases spectacularly so. New innovations can push aside more effective treatments, simply because they’re new. In other situations, we fail to understand why something works, or fail to recognize a better use in an entirely different field.

“Predictions for the future of science and technology are more often wrong than right, in some cases spectacularly so.”

Still, the exercise of attempting to peer into the future is useful, because it pushes us to assess where we are and determine where we want to go. What are the technologies, innovations and trends that will catalyze change? Are we on the right path, or are there opportunities we should be taking greater advantage of?

Johnson & Johnson Innovation asked these questions earlier this year at a couple of events in San Francisco. The participants, a mix of industry leaders, entrepreneurs and investors, discussed and debated what trends could have the biggest impact on the healthcare industry.

The resulting conversation captured the concerns, hopes and predictions for the future of healthcare. We distilled these ideas into a publication, called the Trending in Healthcare Report. The content delves into the rapid advance of technology in the 21st century and how that could change our industry, which at times stubbornly clings to practices that originated in the 19th century.

Below are the four main trends that emerged from this discussion:

Will smartphones, big data and artificial intelligence help prevent, intercept and manage disease?

We teamed up with Xconomy to share these observations. We’ve also recorded a series of podcasts, available on our website, with further discussion from some of our leaders on what they think about these trends.

I invite you to read our Trending in Healthcare report and let us know what you think. Great ideas can and do come from anywhere — and you might just have a solution to a healthcare problem that is only now coming to light, or can champion and bring forward an idea like Coley’s toxins, helping it avoid the dustbin of history.