Businessman and philanthropist W. Clement Stone once said we are all products of our environment. When it comes to physical and mental health, this mantra is truer than most people would imagine.
The role the environment plays in health has never been clearer to researchers and clinicians. New findings reveal as much as 80% of diseases can be attributed to environmental factors to which people subject their bodies. If we can advance our understanding of how our lifestyle choices and habits contribute to short- and long-term health, we can change our trajectories and better protect ourselves from acquiring some of today’s most lethal diseases.
Technological disruption is on the verge of making a lasting impact on how we manage—and prolong—our lives. This is precision health: a revolution in the making I’ve observed for many years, and in which I play a role today.
Motivation through purpose
I first observed the benefits of disruption while working with FMC Corp. Tasked with running its pharmaceutical business, I saw first-hand the important role the drug industry plays in treating disease and how technological innovation could engineer crucial breakthroughs, which would allow patients to more conveniently integrate ongoing treatment into their lives in noninvasive ways.
For the first time, people could take a tablet once per day and the medicine would release throughout the day. This was a highly technical process with a simple but life-changing opportunity to significantly increase patient compliance, without having to continuously interrupt daily routines.
Shaping a personalized future
This first taste of innovation and disruption led me to Zymark. I was particularly moved by the company’s robotics, which promised to industrialize laboratories to discover new therapeutics and, in turn, improve society through more effective treatment of disease. But why stop there?
We realized we could use robotics to shrink the laboratory down to a microchip—about the size of quarter—to advance drug discovery and ultimately DNA. These chips soon evolved into microfluidic chips in which we created DNA libraries for next-generation sequencing. At the time, the idea of sequencing a person’s entire genome was in its infancy. Our team played a role in commercializing the ability to sequence a library of DNA, enabling the growth of these libraries with our chips.
It was at Zymark that I became fascinated with the role of DNA as a tool in understanding the human body and in developing more effective ways of fighting disease. By mapping individuals’ genomes, our researchers were part of the movement toward more customized drug treatments in lieu of a “one-size-fits-all” approach—an idea that would become the cornerstone of precision medicine and later precision health. But advances in DNA sequencing were only the beginning. Researchers would soon discover much more powerful tools for understanding disease and health, opening new opportunities for personalized treatment.
After the 2003 merger of Zymark with Caliper Tech, the new company, Caliper Life Sciences, integrated macro-robotic technology with the micro-miniaturized labs on chips we had developed. We entitled this initiative the “Macro-Micro Interface.” Caliper then acquired Xenogen, a company that pioneered xenographs with lights in animal testing to track cancer growth. With this technology, we could monitor the growth of cancer in mice by observing whether they glowed when certain variables occurred. This revolutionized animal testing.
Because many drugs failed when they left the test tube (in vitro) and were tested in animals, we felt it was critical to optimize this transition and build a bridge, which we called the “In Vitro–In Vivo Bridge,” to ensure the drugs made it across. This marked a key development: through animal testing, we could see—quite literally—a treatment’s intentional or unintentional effect, as well as whether certain drugs were truly safe and effective. While it was often difficult to see what was happening inside a mouse through the course of treatment, the idea that we could more easily monitor the impact of certain drugs was a radical step toward a streamlined, proactive approach that could potentially reduce the time it takes to trial vital treatments. Ultimately, the glowing xenograft for mice successfully industrialized in-vivo testing for cancer drugs.
The cross-disciplinary collaboration of researchers from Caliper, Zymark, and Xenogen underscored the importance of technological and corporate synergy in developing new innovations. More importantly, this innovation taught us that every living organism is unique. The challenge for medicine was not simply our ability to create new drugs; the challenge was in making these drugs as effective as possible for each individual patient. Our ability to understand people on a personalized, molecular level would be paramount to creating effective treatments and ultimately preventing disease. This is where I started becoming very interested in precision medicine. Shortly thereafter, it became the foundation of a larger precision health movement.
Being part of this revolution also pushed us in the direction of diagnostics. At this time, Caliper purchased Cambridge Research Institute, which had developed innovative breast cancer detection technology. Specifically, the company used immunohistochemistry to reveal differences between breast cancer patients and link these results to specific drug regiments. This further illustrated the possibilities of precision health for creating effective treatments for a variety of diseases, from cancer and heart disease to neurological disorders.
Honing the vision
We now started to get a clearer picture of what it would take to truly disrupt healthcare. The approach can be distilled down to three elements:
- Treatment: from drugs to new surgical procedures, advancing the way we approach treating disease
- Early detection: being able to see disease earlier—the earlier we can detect disease, the more effective we are at treating it
- Prevention: stopping disease from presenting in the first place—by focusing on prevention, we can rid ourselves of the need to detect and treat disease completely.
In 2008, we acquired Cambridge Research, Inc. (CRI) to better predict breast cancer and treatment options using special algorithms. At this time, the entire field was beginning to understand that each cancer was unique, depending on the genomic and proteomic makeup of individual patients. In 2011, Caliper was acquired by PerkinElmer, where I became part of that company’s life sciences and technology division. PerkinElmer was focused on big data and the environment, successfully using data to link individual characteristics with drug development. The company also helped advance our understanding of how pollution impacts people’s health.
The undeniable correlation between environmental and lifestyle factors and disease was becoming very clear. These variables were impacting health, but we needed a better way than DNA to measure it. Here we could see an important opportunity to not only use big data to manage treatments for disease at a personal level, but also to prevent disease from occurring in the first place. Genes are often stagnant from birth and provide a window into more fixed health information. We now know they are less likely to determine what’s happening in our bodies at any given moment, and don’t always account for the impact of our environmental factors, such as diet and exercise. Proteins, on the other hand, account for these environmental factors and provide insight into what’s happening in our bodies in real time, and we all have these informative protein biomarkers in our blood.
As I neared retirement, I started hearing more about the power of proteins and the beginnings of new technologies that were making it possible to measure these molecular structures for the first time, becoming obsessed with the idea that proteins are actually the best indicators of disease and health over any other molecular structure. Proteins are more abundant and more relevant. Above all, they can see when the disease cascade is initially triggered, making them a critical tool for advancing treatment, early detection and prevention.
Advancing the science of precision health
I was just settling into retirement when I came upon Quanterix, which was then an early-stage startup focused almost entirely on the power of the protein. Founded by Dr. David Walt, co-founder of Illumina, the company’s mission was to change the way diseases are diagnosed and treated. Knowing the potential for improved protein detection to bring about the precision health revolution, I had to be part of it. Quanterix worked to place a magnifying glass on proteins and what happens in the six quarts of blood that traverse through our bodies every minute.
Through my journey, I’ve learned to focus on creating tools and technologies that can have the broadest application and the greatest impact. From a drug development perspective, this also means casting the widest net possible to include as many biotech or pharma companies as possible to have the greatest opportunity to effect change.
Finally, my personal experiences working in tandem with brilliant researchers has helped shape an approach to improve human health. Instead of focusing on DNA and reactively treating disease, we are now looking at the power of the protein and taking a proactive approach to preventing disease.
Many of us are now committed to advancing this vision and making it a reality. We know it will take a village. That is why we launched the Powering Precision Health Summit in 2016, which brings all key stakeholders together to examine the most lethal diseases and discuss how we can empower the world and empower individuals to prevent disease through the biomarker revolution. We have tracks focused on drug development to look at ways we can use biomarkers to accelerate the approval process for drugs that are safer and more effective. Additionally, we focus on disease prevention through studying ways that biomarkers can help us all make the right choices, staying clear of environment disease triggers.
Ultimately, we believe our ability to come together will fuel the healthcare revolution we have successfully started. By shifting the conversation and our overall approach to early detection and prevention, we have a tremendous opportunity to impact change like never before. We have the power to improve productive life expectancy, reduce premature pain and suffering, and ensure the lives we live are healthy from beginning to end. I’ve had the opportunity to work alongside some of the brightest and kindest people in the world, who truly care about others and improving society. Knowing the power of people and collective movements has made us extremely optimistic about the myriad medical revelations that we believe are on the horizon. There is still a lot of work to be done—a challenge I know we are all up to.
Kevin Hrusovsky is CEO, president, and chairman, Quanterix, 113 Hartwell Ave., Lexington, MA 02421, U.S.A.; tel.: 617-301-9400; e-mail: [email protected]; www.quanterix.com, and founder, Powering Precision Health.