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July 01, 2011 (Vol. 31, No. 13)

Moving Quickly from an Idea to a Product

Rapid Transition from Laboratory Discoveries to Commercialization Is Transforming Healthcare

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    Brad Webb

    It’s been less than a decade since a full human genome was sequenced, but already there is talk that the promise of genomics-inspired personal medicine is not being realized. I couldn’t disagree more. As we point out in this article, cardiologists, psychiatrists, and internists can now order quick and inexpensive genetics-based screening tests to help determine the best treatment for patients with conditions as diverse as depression or diabetes. These days, researchers are actively working on systems that will take the next step, designing specific treatments for specific people based almost entirely on their genome.

    Genomics, it turns out, is only half of it. Also at work is Moore’s Law, which has allowed the electronics industry to deliver products year after year that do more in a smaller space and for lower cost.

    Combine the two and the result is a new era of personalized, clinically actionable medicine, one in which treatments are tailored to the genetic make up of each individual patient. The resulting care will be more effective, since it abandons a one-size-fits-all approach to medicine. It will also be more economical; genomic techniques help doctors know ahead of time what therapies will or won’t work, putting an end to the days of trying several drugs, one after another, to discover the one that is effective.

    Genomic medicine is perfectly in tune with current healthcare policy, which stresses better outcomes at lower overall costs.

    The market opportunities, of course, are enormous. PricewaterhouseCoopers estimates that the core diagnostic and therapeutic segment of the personalized medicine market, made up of pharmaceutical, medical device, and diagnostics companies, is currently worth $24 billion and will reach $42 billion by 2015.

    Even greater growth is predicted for the related fields of telemedicine, health information technology, and disease management. Those services are now valued at between $4 billion and $12 billion a year, but could conceivably grow to $100 billion by 2015.

    Genomic medicine is a perfect investment arena for healthcare venture capitalists because it is so closely aligned with the traditional mission of VCs: taking big bets on novel technologies that have the potential of being transformed into huge commercial products. Most genomics companies are still small start-ups taking advantage of highly focused R&D in an area with enormous potential.

    As it matures, personalized medicine is likely to become a significant part of every global pharmaceutical company’s portfolio. In fact, those corporate divisions might well be built on the foundations of some of the startups described in this article.

    The five companies profiled here are emblematic of this new wave of smart, personal medicine. The founders of these companies come from different academic fields and are all taking different approaches to the problem. Some of the diagnostic firms, for example, are developing low-cost, disposable point-of-care test kits, while others rely on a traditional hospital lab for the test performance.

    But they all show the remarkable speed at which laboratory and research insights are making their way into the doctor’s office. In the case of some diagnostic equipment, barely two years have elapsed between an initial scientific insight and a product being available for evaluation. This pace of change is likely to continue to increase, as medicine is being transformed before our eyes.

  • AssureRx

    AssureRx has developed a diagnostic product that brings the world of genomics to psychiatry. A cheek swab is taken from patients seeing a doctor for a psychiatric condition, anything from moderate anxiety disorder to severe depression or schizophrenia. A lab at company headquarters then analyzes clinically important genetic variants to determine how well the patient will respond to commonly used psychotropic medications.

    The treating physician receives a report that recommends the medications that are the most appropriate for the patient’s condition. This information allows doctors to choose the right drug for the patient from the start, speeding remission of the psychiatric disorder.

  • CardioDx

    CardioDx uses genomics-based diagnostics to bring a new level of precision to the treatment of coronary artery diseases. The immense social cost of cardiac disease is well known, and despite remarkable diagnostic advances over the decades, cardiologists still don’t have all the information they need to make fully informed decisions.

    One study suggested that 62% of patients who underwent invasive angiographic procedures did not, in fact, have any actual blockage to begin with. CardioDx researchers have identified a set of 23 genes and other patient characteristics that are expressed differently in healthy and diseased arterial tissues, and as a result, the company can determine the extent to which an individual patient is susceptible to blockage depending on the score.

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