BaseHealth Opens Its Genomic Health Engine to Outside Developers

June 2, 2015

By Bio-IT World Staff 

June 2, 2015 | BaseHealth, a genomic health company based in Redwood City, Calif., today released an open API to bring its genomic interpretation tools into third-party health platforms. After a year trying to be an all-in-one provider, BaseHealth is shifting direction to reach more end users, even as it sacrifices some control over how its tools are used and presented to patients.

“From early days, our goal was to reach out to as many people as possible,” says Hossein Fakhrai-Rad, the company’s Chief Scientific Officer. “This will enable us now to reach out to a number of different organizations, developers, and people who can help us to scale this up.”

The BaseHealth team has spent the past five years studying genetic variants that create a higher or lower risk of developing conditions like diabetes and heart disease, leaning heavily on a partnership with DNA sequencing company Illumina and its subsidiary NextBio. Last April, the company launched its flagship platform, Genophen, where patients can upload their health, lifestyle, and genetic data and receive information on their personal disease risks, along with recommendations to reduce those risks. Genophen was rolled out to regional medical centers and the European laboratory network LabCo, with the idea that physicians would act as intermediaries between the platform and its users.

Involving doctors was both a principled choice, to help users understand how genetics relates to other health factors, and a practical one, avoiding FDA regulations on medical devices sold direct to patients.

It also proved to be a limit on Genophen’s adoption. “A lot of our target market already had platforms, like EHRs [electronic health records] or patient portals, that they were using to manage their patient populations,” explains BaseHealth CEO Prakash Menon. “They didn’t really want their physicians to log into another platform.”

BaseHealth will continue to offer Genophen as an end-to-end solution, but increasingly its business will take place behind the scenes. The company has already released an enterprise version of its toolkit that integrates with customers’ existing systems, so BaseHealth’s user interfaces can be reached through an EHR or patient portal. Now, the open API will divorce the backend genomic health assessments from the user interfaces entirely.

The BaseHealth team hopes this new direction will let the company take advantage of digital health trends, as more developers build apps and platforms to help individuals manage their own health. “My personal feeling is we are at an inflection point where people are really trying to think about wellness,” says Menon. “There’s a lot of movement in the marketplace around collecting information about oneself, trying to live a healthy life, and I think a lot of it is becoming more and more driven by science.” Because his company has always focused on common chronic diseases, which stand to be most impacted by digital health, Menon hopes the genomic information BaseHealth has painstakingly curated will find a home in a variety of third-party apps.

With the open API released today, developers can query the Genophen analytics engine about risk factors for various diseases; send out patients’ anonymized health and genetic data to receive personalized risk assessments; and let Genophen users share their profiles wholesale with new apps. In addition to chronic disease risks, the API can also provide guidance about the impact of genetics on diet and on certain drug responses.

BaseHealth has enlisted physicians and scientists to help comb the medical literature and validate the company’s claims for the health effects of genetic variants. The company’s assessments are separate from those of public organizations like ClinGen, which publishes variants thought to be disease-related, and CPIC, which recommends genetic tests to use when prescribing drugs.

While an open API could extend BaseHealth’s reach to more users, platforms that use the API won’t necessarily hew to the “holistic” view of health for which the company originally built Genophen. BaseHealth’s own platform combines genetic data with other important health variables to assess risk across a range of diseases, but third parties could have more narrow aims. Many health apps, especially those that coordinate with physicians, focus on a single disease area, with user interfaces that cater to the needs of a specific patient population ― for instance, by adding weather trackers for patients with respiratory problems, or links to glucometers for those with diabetes. Within these apps, the Genophen engine could simply add a targeted set of genetic variants, or a few behavioral recommendations.

More worryingly, app developers could choose to query the Genophen engine without providing all the health data BaseHealth believes is needed to make an accurate assessment, leaving out important factors like a patient’s age, family history, or vital measurements. “Opening up the APIs reduces some of the control we have over how the APIs are used,” says Menon, but he also stresses that BaseHealth has created a new feature to address this concern. “What we have done is to add in the API returns some measure of quality, how good this assessment is based on the information that’s been sent in.” That will at least clearly alert developers if their queries are underpowered.

“We are very excited about this open API,” adds Fakhrai-Rad, “[but] our vision hasn’t changed. We are still targeting common complex diseases that are caused by a number of different factors, and we are trying to deliver this message to developers.”