For Dr. Don Brown Available technology means more available data.
Dr. Brown is the founder and CEO of LifeOmic, a digital health company focused on building infrastructure and the foundation of health technology. LifeOmic describes itself on its website as being “laser-focused on driving the most innovative precision healthcare technology forward to solve healthcare’s most complex challenges.” In short, it means making complex data sets more accessible to people in the industry, such as providers, researchers and companies. The overall idea is obvious: more data available to professionals leads to better and more efficient treatment of patients in terms of the actual practice of medicine. Of course, better and more efficient care certainly appeals to the disabled.
LifeOmic arose after Dr. Brown dedicated some of the proceeds from the sale of a previous company, a software company called Interactive Intelligence, in 2016. In an interview earlier this month via email, he explained that the reason for LifeOmic was to “solve a problem that is vexing the healthcare system in in general and cancer treatment in particular—the extreme difficulty of using the giant ‘omics’ datasets that showed so much promise.” (As Wikipedia explains, omics is the colloquial term in the scientific world for “various disciplines in biology whose names end with the suffix -omicssuch as genomics, proteomics, metabolomics, metagenomics, phenomics and transcriptomics.”)
“I started LifeOmic with the conceit that a small company could jump in and make a difference in healthcare,” said Dr. Brown on the founding of the company.
On the question of his company’s purposeDr. Brown said it’s all about data.
“A sad irony is that while we can now generate vast 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 with managing large data sets . “In 2001, Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen paid something like $100 million to have his entire genome sequenced. Today, you and I can do it for less than $1,000. And it looks like we may soon drop one of those zeroes . Along with the 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 scours 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 that a whole genome sequence is about 100 GB of data, which modern electronic record systems were not designed to accommodate. They were created, he said, for insurance purposes — essentially to facilitate reimbursements. They weren’t created with patient care in mind, let alone the “kind of ‘precision medicine’ made possible by these amazing scientific breakthroughs,” said Dr. Brown. An obvious narrative, he added, is in cancer research. In this scenario, there are two sequences: the patient’s and the disease’s.
“With that information, we can identify the specific mutations [changes] which drives the cancer,” said Dr. Brown. “The exciting thing is that armed with that knowledge, we can often administer highly targeted therapies instead of relying on old-fashioned chemotherapy that just kills everything that moves.”
The LifeOmic team worked with doctors and researchers at the Indiana School of Medicine to build a cloud-based platform capable of manipulating these giant datasets and, more importantly, making them usable to humans. The work proved so successful that it quickly moved from the clinical research phase to the daily treatment of complex cancer cases at Indiana University Health.
Seeing his work become so successful so quickly had a profound effect on Dr. Brown, which motivated him to do more and keep pushing LifeOmic forward.
“I’m incredibly proud to say that oncologists have used our technology to identify actionable mutations and corresponding treatments for cases previously considered hopeless. These are the stories that drive our team of software engineers, data scientists, geneticists and physicians ,” he said. they don’t go too far—actually make us healthier. Whether the stress is from lack of food, physical exertion, heat, cold, or altitude, our bodies have this amazing ability to handle and make sure we’re ready for the worst. It turns out that the measures our bodies take to deal with these stresses reduce our risk of virtually every chronic disease, from diabetes to cancer.”
However successful it was, Dr. Brown that all this potential had to be somehow directly connected to patients. To that end, his team built an app that doctors can recommend to people to better communicate with them and, crucially, gather relevant information. In addition, the team created what Dr. Brown described as a “flip book-style” tool that helps write and deliver patient education materials. Both tools are ultimately assistive technologies—just not in the classic sense that birthed this column, but accessibility nonetheless.
“This became another firehose of information that we could combine with the omics datasets I mentioned earlier to gain a real-time understanding of what was happening in a patient’s body… I think that between the cloud platform and the patient engagement tools, LifeOmic has the most complete end-to-end health data management solution in the world,” said Dr. Brown.
On a macro level, Dr. Brown and his company’s work to help identify and prevent catastrophic diseases like cancer. He is optimistic about the advances in medical technology, especially when it comes to genetics, to help doctors understand how diseases like cancer manifest and how best to treat it. Cancer, said Dr. Brown, is only the tip of the legendary iceberg; focus on DNA has broad applicability, from neurology to cardiology to endocrinology and many more disciplines. “Our goal is to empower researchers and clinicians to harness these huge data sets and use them to help patients prevent disease,” he said. “And, of course, to guide clinicians in utilizing this information to tailor treatment when diseases such as cancer and Alzheimer’s eventually develop.”
What LifeOmic does is a microcosm of the activity in the industry as a whole, where Dr. Brown tells me that state governments are “actively exploring ways to harness 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 that the United Kingdom is already talking about sequencing a child’s genome at birth and then exploring how that data can influence health plans throughout the person’s life. “That’s where all of this is going. It’s been amazing to see the convergence of information technology and healthcare. With cloud-based platforms, it’s now possible to bring together all the health-related data mentioned above for each patient,” said Dr. Brown. “The next step is to make this information usable and understandable for both clinicians and patients. Given the sheer scale of the data, the only way to achieve this is through automation.”
He continued: “Hard-headed human doctors hardly have time to scan through the electronic medical record before seeing a patient today. They have no hope of being able to make sense of the gigabytes of information in a whole genome sequence, much less to figure out how they can make use of it in clinical practice. Large-scale data aggregation platforms like the one we’ve built are the entry ticket to this brave new world. But the potential is huge. Most excitingly, it allows to bring personalized care for people who currently do not have access to doctors and other health professionals.”
Looking to the future, the goal for Dr. Brown to keep the momentum. As mentioned, he started LifeOmic with the hope that, to paraphrase Steve Jobs, he could make inroads into the healthcare universe. So far so good, but given how technological progress is an unchanging force, the goal is to keep up.
“It has been gratifying to see that hope [transforming healthcare] realized in complex cancer cases. Now the goal is to expand the use of our technology to help healthcare professionals of all types tailor their recommendations and treatments to the unique needs of individual patients,” said Dr. Brown. “If we see the field’s needs as a pyramid, the cloud platform is the very base. Mobile-based patient engagement is the next layer. Next on the stack are the graphical visualizations and analysis tools we’ve added for researchers, but the biggest challenge is making this technology accessible to non-experts: primary care physicians, dieticians, physical therapists, and the patients themselves. We intend to address this challenge with decision support tools that leverage AI to make specific recommendations. It’s all going to happen. It’s up to the entire field to cut through the jungle [country’s] the healthcare system to achieve broad adoption and realize the enormous potential. Scientists of the kind I wanted to be has paved the way. It is up to the rest of us to walk it.”