For Dr. Don Brown, accessible tech means more accessible data.
Dr. Brown is founder and chief executive of LifeOmic, a digital health company whose focus is on building infrastructure and the underpinnings of health tech. LifeOmic describes itself on its website as being “laser-focused on driving the most innovative precision health technology forward to solve healthcare’s most complex challenges.” Put simply, that means making complex data sets more accessible to people in the industry such as providers, researchers, and enterprises. The big picture idea is obvious: more accessible data for professionals leads to better, more efficient care for patients in terms of the actual practice of medicine. Of course, better and more efficient care is certainly appealing to disabled people.
LifeOmic came into existence after Dr. Brown dedicated a portion of the proceeds from the sale of a previous company, a software firm called Interactive Intelligence, in 2016. In an interview earlier this month via email, he explained the reason for LifeOmic was to “solve a problem vexing the healthcare system in general and cancer therapy in particular—the extreme difficulty in using the gigantic ‘omics’ data sets that were showing such tremendous promise.” (As Wikipedia explains, omics is the colloquial term in the scientific world for “various disciplines in biology whose names end in the suffix -omics, such as genomics, proteomics, metabolomics, metagenomics, phenomics and transcriptomics.”)
“I started LifeOmic harboring the conceit that a small company could jump in and make a difference in healthcare,” Dr. Brown said of founding the company.
When asked about his company’s raison d’être, Dr. Brown said it’s about data.
“A sad irony is that while we can now generate huge amounts of data capable of personalizing medical care, our healthcare institutions are woefully ill-equipped to make use of it,” he said of the healthcare industry’s problem in managing large datasets. “In 2001, Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen paid something like $100M to have his entire genome sequenced. Today, you and I can do that for less than $1,000. And it’s looking like we can soon drop one of those zeros. Along with that exponential decrease in the cost of sequencing, there has been an explosion in our understanding of what those three billion DNA letters actually mean. LifeOmic crawls public databases around the world every night and has compiled a list of over 55 billion versions (called variants) of our roughly 20,000 genes and their associations with various diseases.”
Dr. Brown further explained an entire genome sequence is about 100GB worth of data, which modern electronic medical record systems weren’t designed to accommodate. They were created, he said, for insurance purposes—essentially, for facilitating reimbursements. They weren’t created with an eye for patient care, let alone the “sort of ‘precision medicine’ made possible by these amazing scientific breakthroughs,” Dr. Brown said. An obvious tell, he added, is in cancer research. In this scenario, there are two sequences: the patient’s and that of the disease.
“With that information, we can identify the specific mutations [changes] that are driving the cancer,” Dr. Brown said. “The exciting thing is that armed with that knowledge, we can frequently administer highly targeted therapies instead of relying on old-school chemotherapy that just kills whatever moves.”
The LifeOmic team worked with physicians and researchers at the Indiana School of Medicine in building a cloud-based platform capable of manipulating these gargantuan datasets and, more importantly, making them usable to people. The work proved so successful, it quickly transitioned from the clinical research stage to the day-to-day treatment of complex cancer cases at Indiana University Health.
Seeing his work become so successful so quickly had a profound effect on Dr. Brown, motivating him to do more, to keep pushing LifeOmic forward.
“I’m incredibly proud to say oncologists have used our technology to identify actionable mutations and corresponding therapies for cases previously considered hopeless. Those are the stories that drive our team of software engineers, data scientists, geneticists, and physicians,” he said. “Along the way, we indulged in a side project that took off in an unexpected way. During my studies at Johns Hopkins, I became fascinated with a process called hormesis. It’s this strange concept that many types of stress—as long as they don’t go too far—actually make us healthier. Whether the stress is due to lack of food, physical exertion, heat, cold, or altitude, our bodies have this amazing ability to deal and make sure we’re ready for worse. It turns out the measures our bodies take to deal with these stresses reduce our risk of just about every chronic disease, from diabetes to cancer.”
However wildly successful, Dr. Brown realized all this potential had to be directly connected to patients somehow. To that end, his team built an app that physicians can recommend to people in order to better communicate with them and, crucially, gather pertinent information. In addition, the team created what Dr. Brown described as a “flip book-style” tool that helps in writing and delivering patient education materials. Both tools ultimately are assistive technologies—just not in the classical sense that birthed this column, but accessibility nonetheless.
“This became another firehose of information that we could combine with the omics data sets I mentioned previously to gain a real-time understanding of what was happening in a patient’s body… I think between the cloud platform and the patient engagement tools, LifeOmic has the most complete end-to-end healthcare data management solution in the world,” Dr. Brown said.
At a macro level, the work by Dr. Brown and his company is about helping identify and prevent catastrophic illnesses like cancer. He’s optimistic about the advancements in medical tech, specifically when it comes to genetics, in helping doctors understand how diseases like cancer manifest and how to best treat it. Cancer, Dr. Brown said, is just the tip of the proverbial iceberg; the focus on DNA has wide-ranging applicability, from neurology to cardiology to endocrinology and many more disciplines. “Our goal is to allow researchers and clinicians to tame these huge data sets and use them to help patients prevent disease,” he said. “And of course, to guide clinicians in taking advantage of this information to personalize treatment when diseases like cancer and Alzheimer’s ultimately develop.”
What LifeOmic is doing is a microcosm of the activity in the industry at large, with Dr. Brown telling me state governments are “actively examining ways to leverage the potential of precision medicine at the population level to benefit millions of people.” The same is happening elsewhere in the world; Dr. Brown added the United Kingdom is already talking about sequencing a child’s genome at birth and then examining how that data might influence healthcare plans throughout the person’s life. “That’s where all of this is going. It has been amazing to watch the convergence of information technology and healthcare. With cloud-based platforms, it’s now possible to aggregate all the health-related data mentioned above for each patient,” Dr. Brown said. “The next step is to make this information actionable and comprehensible to both clinicians and patients. Given the sheer scale of the data, the only way to accomplish this is through automation.”
He continued: “Harried human physicians hardly have time to scan through the electronic medical record before seeing a patient today. They have no hope of being able to comprehend the gigabytes of information in a whole genome sequence much less to figure out how to make use of it in clinical practice. Large-scale data aggregation platforms such as the one we’ve built are the entry ticket to this brave new world. But the potential is massive. Most excitingly, it offers the opportunity to bring personalized care to people who currently don’t have access to physicians and other health professionals.”
Looking towards the future, the goal for Dr. Brown is to keep the momentum. As mentioned, he started LifeOmic with hopes he could, to paraphrase Steve Jobs, make a dent in the healthcare universe. So far so good, but seeing as how technological progress is an immutable force, the objective is to move with it.
“It’s been gratifying to see that hope [transforming healthcare] realized in complex cancer cases. Now the goal is to expand use of our technology to help healthcare professionals of all types tailor their recommendations and therapies to the unique needs of individual patients,” Dr. Brown said. “If we view the needs of the field as a pyramid, the cloud platform is the very base. Mobile-based patient engagement is the following layer. Next up the stack are the graphical visualizations and analytic tools we’ve added for researchers, but the biggest challenge is to make this technology available to non-experts: primary care physicians, dietitians, physical therapists, and patients themselves. We intend to address this challenge with decision-support tools that leverage AI to make specific recommendations. This is all going to happen. It’s up to the entire field to cut through the jungle of the [country’s] healthcare system to achieve broad adoption and realize the enormous potential. Researchers of the sort I wanted to be have paved the way. It’s up to the rest of us to walk it.”