LifeMap Solutions Joins New Wave of Genetic Health Companies
By Aaron Krol
May 19, 2014 | Starting in 2006, the U.S. experienced its first wave of market enthusiasm for genetic health services. In the space of two years, several major players – Navigenics, 23andMe, Pathway Genomics, and deCODE genetics – launched products offering to take customers’ DNA samples and turn them into reports on common disease risks. This rush to market has more or less fizzled out now, with every one of these companies either voluntarily withdrawing from the direct-to-consumer model, or forced out of the health space by the FDA.
But it’s beginning to look like 2014 will mark a second wave for genetic health. Bio-IT World has already covered the entrances of Coriell Life Sciences and BaseHealth into the field. Now another entrant, LifeMap Solutions, has dipped its toe in the water with a quiet launch and hints about its service to come.
“Obviously, there are a few players in this growing space, and I think in the next few years we will see explosive and chaotic growth,” says Corey Bridges, the CEO of the new company. “It’s a unique time for opportunities and risks.”
Bridges has formerly served as a key business developer for Netscape, Netflix, and Zone Labs during those companies’ public launches. He describes himself as being in the “show, don’t tell” camp, and is saying as little as possible about LifeMap Solutions’ service in advance of a beta test later this year and an expected public release in 2015. Still, LifeMap Solutions, as a division of the larger BioTime, Inc., faces certain mandatory disclosures, and a few reasons have already emerged to keep an eye on the company: most notably, its decision to go mobile, and the involvement of renowned systems biologist Eric Schadt.
The Second Wave
The new generation of genetic health companies is sharply distinct from the 2006-2008 crop. On the one hand, they are more cautious about dispensing health advice to users, looking for firm regulatory guidance and the input of health professionals. Both Coriell Life Sciences and BaseHealth are calling on physicians to act as intermediaries and interpreters, helping users understand the context of their genetic risks and what behaviors might be appropriate to improve their health.
LifeMap Solutions has not stated that physicians will be directly involved in their service, but the idea is clearly on the executive team’s minds. “Our appraisal is that, in terms of recognizing the need, and consumer demand for a product, it’s probably greater in the physician community than in the public right now,” says BioTime CEO Michael West, who joined Bridges in speaking to Bio-IT World about his company’s new subsidiary. “The public doesn’t fully understand the information that can be gleaned from either a SNP analysis or whole genome, but physicians are seeing all these papers popping up.”
“You certainly don’t want to be making a product that makes unwarranted predictive or diagnostic claims,” he adds, acknowledging that LifeMap Solutions is already in touch with the FDA about its product.
Yet despite their abundance of caution, the younger genetic health providers also in many ways have broader ambitions than their predecessors. Both Coriell and BaseHealth have built systems capable of storing customers’ whole genomes, rather than just targeted genotypes – and through a partnership with the Icahn Institute for Genomics and Multiscale Biology at Mt. Sinai School of Medicine, one of the country’s major powerhouses of whole genome sequencing, it seems likely that LifeMap Solutions will do the same.
On a more basic level, the focus is increasingly on genomics as just one among many important health variables. BaseHealth is bringing on board data from patients’ lifestyles and clinical histories, to place genetic risks in a meaningful context and better personalize its service. LifeMap Solutions plans to do the same, and will have the advantage of interfacing with mobile devices, which suggests the possibility of using wearable devices as an added source of data.
“A platform like the one we’re currently building needs to have a somewhat modular architecture, so that new data sources can be added as they make sense.” says Bridges. “We definitely will have a platform that’s architected to have a wide range of inputs… There’s a chance to get an unprecedentedly full look at somebody’s health.”
Of course, the genetic element remains a major selling point. The depth of knowledge needed to really plumb the genome for health information means that the newer genetic health companies tend not to be fully independent startups, but closely associated with existing knowledge bases. Coriell Life Sciences is a commercial spin-off of the Coriell Personalized Medicine Collaborative, while BaseHealth relies on a partnership with Illumina, which maintains the world’s largest curated genomic database through its subsidiary NextBio. LifeMap Solutions, too, draws on the resources of its parent company, and in particular of BioTime subsidiary LifeMap Sciences, whose GeneCards and MalaCards products catalogue information on the genetic basis of nearly 20,000 human disorders. “It’s definitely appropriate to say we will be leveraging expertise and content from LifeMap Sciences,” says Bridges.
“Watching the plummeting costs of sequencing the genome, and the rapid rise of other digitized medical data, we recognized that we had a good foundation [at BioTime] to build a leading service and product to manage all that data,” adds West. “Not just for researchers, but for the public in general.”
Low Profile Company, High Profile Partnership
For many observers, however, the real buzz around the soft launch of LifeMap Solutions will be its close partnership with the Icahn Institute. This is the home of Dr. Eric Schadt, who has attracted a reputation for shaking up fundamental ideas about biology and disease.
Schadt’s guiding passion is for making human biology messier and more holistic, insisting that the old paradigm of genetic variants leading to proteins leading to disease is broken and needs to be revised. He looks at biology as a system of interlocking networks, where thousands of genes are likely to be implicated in any given disease, together with innumerable environmental factors, and leading to a wide spectrum of phenotypes and treatment possibilities in disorders that have traditionally been viewed as static and absolute. It’s a view that few biologists would likely disagree with in principle, but even fewer are prepared to study in practice.
Although he has spent time at both Merck and Pacific Biosciences, Schadt was drawn to become the founding director of the Icahn Institute by the promise of combining a world-class genomics lab with the Mt. Sinai hospital system’s impressive vault of clinical data on its patients. “Eric deserves a lot of credit for organizing and attracting to his group an amazing constellation of individuals,” says West, who met Schadt through the investor Carl Icahn, the major donor to the Icahn Institute. West and Schadt quickly began discussing what kind of system could best deliver insights from network biology to patients.
“The reason we’ve connected with Eric is that his group’s work is not just on genomics – it’s really big data, and multiscale biology,” West continues. “If you see his presentations, he talks about having all kinds of data feeds that interface with your genome.” LifeMap Solutions is taking advantage of the Icahn Institute’s shared excitement around uniting different sources of health information, by imbedding its product development directly in Mt. Sinai.
“It’s not some sort of simple, arm’s-length licensing arrangement, where we email information back and forth every few weeks,” says Bridges. “We will have team members located onsite, working side by side with the Mt. Sinai folks.”
While the combined knowledge of the Icahn Institute and LifeMap Sciences will be used to turn the spectrum of patient data into usable health insights, the team is not yet specifying exactly what kind of information users will receive. Both disease risk reports and behavioral recommendations have faced tight scrutiny by the FDA, and LifeMap Solutions is wary of revealing too much while discussions with the agency are ongoing.
The company is, however, stating that its employees at Mt. Sinai will be building a platform for mobile devices based on the systems biology approach of the Icahn Institute, which will be the LifeMap Solutions' flagship product. Bridges expects this platform to be extensible and to evolve over time. “In a sense, what we’re doing is building a cloud-based operating system for mhealth access to this holistic health and wellness information,” he says. “So there will be multiple iterations, multiple apps,” although the beta launch slated for this year will concentrate on just one app.
Bridges says that the choice to go mobile will help with consumer access. “Most cell phones in the hands of consumers now are smart phones, and a lot of computing on the consumer side is moving from desktops and laptops to mobile devices,” he continues. “That is an irresistible tide, so that is where consumers are going to be spending their time when they interact with the Internet or computers.”
There are still many unanswered questions about LifeMap Solutions, but the company joins an accelerating trend to bring greater context and rigor to genetic health insights, reaching out to patients without overstepping regulatory bounds. The day seems once again to be approaching when personalized genetic medicine could be as close and convenient as our smartphones.