Visualizing a path to better cancer treatment

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SCOPE

Data visualization, data encryption, user interface design, authentication, AWS implementation

TECHNOLOGY

Amazon Simple Storage Service (Amazon S3), AWS Lambda, Amazon DynamoDB, Amazon CloudFront, Amazon Cognito, React

Helping doctors see the fight against cancer differently

No one expects the fight against cancer to be easy. It’s a fight, after all. But the formidable challenge came into sharper focus when oncologists at Sygnomics explained that every cancer—and every cancer patient—is unique. It’s this complexity, in part, that causes most new cancer drugs to fail in clinical trials. Matching the right drug to each tumor is beyond difficult. And the risk and cost of failure loom unimaginably high.

But the oncologists and technologists at Sygnomics are working on a solution.

They’re creating Systems Genetics Network Analysis (SYGNAL), an intelligence platform designed to help doctors and researchers visualize how a patient’s cancer may progress and recommend treatments with predicted therapeutic efficacy for that profile. SYGNAL achieves this by comparing anonymized genetic and demographic information. Using a machine learning model, the platform can improve its recommendations over time as new expert-reviewed data is entered.

It's a big idea—one that’s easier to explain with visual aid. That’s why Sygnomics wanted a functional prototype of a web-based app with data visualization dashboard to demonstrate SYGNAL to other oncologists and potential partners.

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Building ‘easy-to-use’ is anything but simple

Destined for the desks of busy doctors and scientists, the user experience had to be intuitive. Design and visualizations needed to be scientifically useful as well as accurate and simple to understand. We conducted regular user testing sessions with oncologists to not only better understand their needs, but get a true, real-world measure of the efficacy of this proof-of-concept.

And in addition to the app, we also had to build trust. Our team worked to secure, anonymize, and encrypt the data to meet FDA and HIPAA compliance. And on the front end, it had to be contextualized so oncologists could easily be confident that the data came from an authoritative source.

What’s more, we didn’t have access to the complete dataset right away. So, initially the team worked with mock data that didn’t tell engineers everything they needed—which meant more research, data modeling, PII anonymization, and converting data to get it in the right format.

Finally, like Sygnomics, we had our own idea to test. We added Builders from our 2021 paid internship program to a client-facing delivery team. Because we want our interns to work on real projects that come with real-life expectations and, naturally, real challenges. They were fully supported, coached, and mentored by builders from across the organization, but they truly ran the project.

In the end, the SYGNAL prototype we built allows users to create an account, log in, and view various dashboards presenting patient blueprints, relevant therapies, and risk analysis—all in a polished, responsive, easy-to-use web application that looks as good as it functions.

In the fight against cancer, vision is key

This project reminds us why effective data visualization is so important: it translates complex information into digestible, shareable—and more powerful—ideas. With this platform, Sygnomics hopes to motivate oncologists to share more insights and help each other make greater progress.

The SYGNAL platform is still in development, but the Sygnomics team is closer to realizing its vision: Setting in motion a continuous learning loop to help oncologists help more people. It’s an exciting and hopeful idea that shows how important vision, and visualization, is in the fight against cancer.

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Building the future—with the future

“This is how we do things at Slalom Build. It’s collaborative. It's people first.”

Becka Blackburn, Senior Solution Owner, Slalom Build


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Some interns started out a little nervous. What if they couldn’t answer a client’s question? What if they had never worked on this aspect of a project before?

A good internship doesn’t sail without mentors. We tapped Builders beyond our core team for specialized expertise in data encryption and authentication. And project mentors not only provided practical advice but helped the interns find a crucial ingredient for creativity: confidence. Interns reported that receiving feedback and encouragement from professional colleagues inspired them to keep pushing forward.

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Building the future—with the future

The Slalom Build Internship program is all about doing. We believe in giving our Build interns real-world experience working with cross-functional teams to build actual digital products and experiences. Sygnomics was the perfect project for the program.

Fourteen engineering and design interns contributed to this project cross-functionally and remotely from Houston, Chicago, Seattle, Vancouver, Denver, and other cities. There was no shallow end in this pool. Interns dove right in, learning about Agile methodologies and our internal project tools for the first time. That’s in addition to tackling their assigned deliverables, which they presented to clients at progress updates.

Some interns started out a little nervous. What if they couldn’t answer a client’s question? What if they had never worked on this aspect of a project before?

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