Arya Amini, M.D.: Fighting Cancer with Big Data and a Big Heart
November 6, 2017 | by Maxine Nunes
When he was 10 years old, an age when most boys fantasize about being ball players or astronauts, Arya Amini dreamed of becoming a doctor.
“There was nothing I wanted more. My grandfather was a physician, and I saw how happy and satisfied with his life he was. It just inspired me.”
By the time he was in high school, he had already discovered the area of medicine he was drawn to. “I did volunteer work with cancer patients, and I knew those were the people I wanted to treat.”
A native of Thousand Oaks, California, Amini completed his medical studies and internship at University of California Irvine and a residency at University of Colorado. Today, he’s a radiation oncologist at City of Hope, specializing in head, neck and lung cancers, with more than 60 published studies and several professional awards.
Experience has only deepened his passion for his work, which draws on two distinct qualities that on the surface appear to be opposites. His warmth and personal concern for his patients make him an exceptional practitioner, while his skill at analyzing the complexities of big data is shedding new light on cancer research.
A New Frontier in Cancer Research
The term “big data” refers to the enormous amount of computerized information that we can now collect, store and sort, and Amini is excited to be involved in creating a big data center for City of Hope.
These vast sets of numbers can yield important information on everything from the sequencing of cancer genomes to modes of treatment and their survival rates.
In one recently published study, Amini laid the groundwork for understanding whether chemotherapy in addition to radiation was advisable for elderly patients. The data showed the combination did produce better outcomes, results that will now be put to a more stringent test in a randomized control trial.
He’s particularly enthusiastic about big data research on cancer mutations and the new treatments it’s yielding.
“Eventually we won’t care so much about where the cancer is, and instead of saying ‘You have lung cancer,’ we’ll focus on mutations,” he said. “That’s what’s really driving therapy now, finding agents — and we already have some — that can attack only the cells with those mutations.”
One such tool that he uses in his own practice is called stereotactic body radiation therapy (SBRT), a highly precise treatment that can be used for cancers in several different organs, including the lung, liver and pancreas — and with a far higher success rate than conventional radiation.
Improving Health Care Access for Everyone
Whether you’re rich or poor, you should have access to proper care, especially for a disease that can kill you, like cancer,” Amini said. “This is a big passion of mine.”
His interest led to a 2016 study of the relationship between health insurance coverage and cancer outcomes, published in the American Journal of Clinical Oncology. The statistics clearly showed that, within 30 days of surgery, the uninsured were far more likely to die.
While health insurance remains a hot-button political issue, big data is not only highlighting health care disparities, it’s also leading to some solutions.
One problem the numbers revealed was that populations who live far from hospitals were getting suboptimal care. City of Hope began placing satellite centers in those areas and setting up teleconferences so their physicians can now confer with local doctors, especially those who may not be familiar with some rare types of cancers.
“We all communicate, review each other’s plans and make sure everyone is providing the same quality care,” Amini said. “That’s been a really nice thing.”
For cancer patients, access also means getting to radiation treatments, especially over a long course of therapy, regardless of their geographical location or financial means.
“We know that delaying treatment or taking breaks in the middle of radiation can hurt survival outcomes,” he said. In short, the difference between life and death.
City of Hope’s response to the problem is one Amini is enthusiastic about and hopes can be expanded — onsite housing for radiation patients who could not otherwise get proper treatment.
What It’s Really All About — People
Although Amini is deeply involved with the complex analytics of big data, his heart is with his patients. And his admiration and depth of feeling for them is so strong, the words don’t come easily.
“They are truly amazing people who are going through a life-threatening disease that affects both them and their families.” Is he talking about just a few outstanding patients? “Honestly,” he said, “it’s pretty much all of them.”
He feels, in fact, that it’s an honor to serve them.
“Whether I can cure them or just help to relieve their pain,” he said, “that’s what makes it great to go to the hospital every day. You know the famous saying: If you love what you do, you never work a day of your life. It’s definitely true with medicine.”
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