Is the value of "personalized medicine" over-promised? Why is the quality of health care declining for many people despite the pace of innovation? Do patients and doctors have conflicting priorities? What is the best path forward?
"How do we generate evidence for value, which is what everyone is asking for?"
Some of the country's leading medical experts recently debated these questions at the prestigious annual Personalized Medicine Conference, held at Harvard Medical School in Boston, and LeapsMag was there to bring you the inside scoop.
Personalized Medicine: Is It Living Up to the Hype?
The buzzworthy phrase "personalized medicine" has been touted for years as the way of the future—customizing care to patients based on their predicted responses to treatments given their individual genetic profiles or other analyses. Since the initial sequencing of the human genome around fifteen years ago, the field of genomics has exploded as the costs have dramatically come down – from $2.7 billion to $1000 or less today. Given cheap access to such crucial information, the medical field has been eager to embrace an ultramodern world in which preventing illnesses is status quo, and treatments can be tailored for maximum effectiveness. But whether that world has finally arrived remains debatable.
"I've been portrayed as an advocate for genomics, because I'm excited about it," said Robert C. Green, Director of the Genomes2People Research Program at Harvard Medical School, the Broad Institute, and Brigham and Women's Hospital. He qualified his advocacy by saying that he tries to remain 'equipoised' or balanced in his opinions about the future of personalized medicine, and expressed skepticism about some aspects of its rapid commercialization.
"I have strong feelings about some of the [precision medicine] products that are rushing out to market in both the physician-mediated space and the consumer space," Green said, and challenged the value and sustainability of these products, such as their clinical utility and ability to help produce favorable health outcomes. He asked what most patients and providers want to know, which is, "What are the medical, behavioral, and economic outcomes? How do we generate evidence for value, which is what everyone is asking for?" He later questioned whether the use of 'sexy' and expensive diagnostic technologies is necessarily better than doing things the old-fashioned way. For instance, it is much easier and cheaper to ask a patient directly about their family history of disease, instead of spending thousands of dollars to obtain the same information with pricey diagnostic tests.
"Our mantra is to try to do data-driven health...to catch disease when it occurs early."
Michael Snyder, Professor & Chair of the Department of Genetics and Director of the Center for Genomics and Personalized Medicine at Stanford University, called himself more of an 'enthusiast' about precision medicine products like wearable devices that can digitally track vital signs, including heart rate and blood oxygen levels. "I'm certainly not equipoised," he said, adding, "Our mantra is to try to do data-driven health. We are using this to try to understand health and catch disease when it occurs early."
Snyder then shared his personal account about how his own wearable device alerted him to seek treatment while he was traveling in Norway. "My blood oxygen was low and my heart rate was high, so that told me something was up," he shared. After seeing a doctor, he discovered he was suffering from Lyme disease. He then shared other similar success stories about some of the patients in his department. Using wearable health sensors, he said, could significantly reduce health care costs: "$245 billion is spent every year on diabetes, and if we reduce that by ten percent we just saved $24 billion."
From left, Robert Green, Michael Snyder, Sandro Galea, and Thomas Miller.
(Courtesy Rachele Hendricks-Sturrup)
A Core Reality: Unresolved Societal Issues
Sandro Galea, Dean and Professor at Boston University's School of Public Health, coined himself as a 'skeptic' but also an 'enormous fan' of new technologies. He said, "I want to make sure that you all [the audience] have the best possible treatment for me when I get sick," but added, "In our rush and enthusiasm to embrace personalized and precision medicine approaches, we have done that at the peril of forgetting a lot of core realities."
"There's no one to pay for health care but all of us."
Galea stressed the need to first address certain difficult societal issues because failing to do so will deter precision medicine cures in the future. "Unless we pay attention to domestic violence, housing, racism, poor access to care, and poverty… we are all going to lose," he said. Then he quoted recent statistics about the country's growing gap in both health and wealth, which could potentially erode patient and provider interest in personalized medicine.
Thomas Miller, the founder and partner of a venture capital firm dedicated to advancing precision medicine, agreed with Galea and said that "there's no one to pay for health care but all of us." He recalled witnessing 'abuse' of diagnostic technologies that he had previously invested in. "They were often used as mechanisms to provide unnecessary care rather than appropriate care," he said. "The trend over my 30-year professional career has been that of sensitivity over specificity."
In other words: doctors rely too heavily on diagnostic tools that are sensitive enough to detect signs of a disease, but not accurate enough to confirm the presence of a specific disease. "You will always find that you're sick from something," Miller said. He lamented the counter-productivity and waste brought on by such 'abuse' and added, "That's money that could be used to address some of the problems that you [Galea] just talked about."
Do Patients and Providers Have Conflicting Priorities?
Distrust in the modern health care system is not new in the United States. That fact that medical errors were the third leading cause of death in 2016 may have fueled this mistrust even more. And the level of mistrust appears correlated with race; a recent survey of 118 adults between 18 to 75 years old showed that black respondents were less likely to trust their doctors than the non-Hispanic white respondents. The black respondents were also more concerned about personal privacy and potentially harmful hospital experimentation.
"The vast majority of physicians in this country are incentivized to keep you sick."
As if this context weren't troubling enough, some of the panelists suggested that health care providers and patients have misaligned goals, which may be financially driven.
For instance, Galea stated that health care is currently 'curative' even though that money is better spent on prevention versus cures. "The vast majority of physicians in this country are incentivized to keep you sick," he declared. "They are paid by sick patient visits. Hospital CEOs are paid by the number of sick people they have in their beds." He highlighted this issue as a national priority and mentioned some case studies showing that the behaviors of hospital CEOs quickly change when payment is based on the number of patients in beds versus the number of patients being kept out of the beds. Green lauded Galea's comment as "good sense."
Green also cautioned the audience about potential financial conflicts of interest held by proponents of precision medicine technologies. "Many of the people who are promoting genomics and personalized medicine are people who have financial interests in that arena," he warned. He emphasized that those who are perhaps curbing the over-enthusiasm do not have financial interests at stake.
What is the Best Path Forward for Personalized Medicine?
As useful as personalized medicine may be for selecting the best course of treatment, there is also the flip side: It can allow doctors to predict who will not respond well—and this painful reality must be acknowledged.
Miller argued, "We have a duty to call out therapies that won't work, that will not heal, that need to be avoided, and that will ultimately lead to you saying to a patient, 'There is nothing for you that will work.'"
Although that may sound harsh, it captures the essence of this emerging paradigm, which is to maximize health by using tailored methods that are based on comparative effectiveness, evidence of outcomes, and patient preferences. After all, as Miller pointed out, it wouldn't do much good to prescribe someone a regimen with little reason to think it might help.
For the hype around personalized medicine to be fully realized, Green concluded, "We have to prove to people that [the value of it] is true."
When David M. Kurtz was doing his clinical fellowship at Stanford University Medical Center in 2009, specializing in lymphoma treatments, he found himself grappling with a question no one could answer. A typical regimen for these blood cancers prescribed six cycles of chemotherapy, but no one knew why. "The number seemed to be drawn out of a hat," Kurtz says. Some patients felt much better after just two doses, but had to endure the toxic effects of the entire course. For some elderly patients, the side effects of chemo are so harsh, they alone can kill. Others appeared to be cancer-free on the CT scans after the requisite six but then succumbed to it months later.
"Anecdotally, one patient decided to stop therapy after one dose because he felt it was so toxic that he opted for hospice instead," says Kurtz, now an oncologist at the center. "Five years down the road, he was alive and well. For him, just one dose was enough." Others would return for their one-year check up and find that their tumors grew back. Kurtz felt that while CT scans and MRIs were powerful tools, they weren't perfect ones. They couldn't tell him if there were any cancer cells left, stealthily waiting to germinate again. The scans only showed the tumor once it was back.
Blood cancers claim about 68,000 people a year, with a new diagnosis made about every three minutes, according to the Leukemia Research Foundation. For patients with B-cell lymphoma, which Kurtz focuses on, the survival chances are better than for some others. About 60 percent are cured, but the remaining 40 percent will relapse—possibly because they will have a negative CT scan, but still harbor malignant cells. "You can't see this on imaging," says Michael Green, who also treats blood cancers at University of Texas MD Anderson Medical Center.
The new blood test is sensitive enough to spot one cancerous perpetrator amongst one million other DNA molecules.
Kurtz wanted a better diagnostic tool, so he started working on a blood test that could capture the circulating tumor DNA or ctDNA. For that, he needed to identify the specific mutations typical for B-cell lymphomas. Working together with another fellow PhD student Jake Chabon, Kurtz finally zeroed-in on the tumor's genetic "appearance" in 2017—a pair of specific mutations sitting in close proximity to each other—a rare and telling sign. The human genome contains about 3 billion base pairs of nucleotides—molecules that compose genes—and in case of the B-cell lymphoma cells these two mutations were only a few base pairs apart. "That was the moment when the light bulb went on," Kurtz says.
The duo formed a company named Foresight Diagnostics, focusing on taking the blood test to the clinic. But knowing the tumor's mutational signature was only half the process. The other was fishing the tumor's DNA out of patients' bloodstream that contains millions of other DNA molecules, explains Chabon, now Foresight's CEO. It would be like looking for an escaped criminal in a large crowd. Kurtz and Chabon solved the problem by taking the tumor's "mug shot" first. Doctors would take the biopsy pre-treatment and sequence the tumor, as if taking the criminal's photo. After treatments, they would match the "mug shot" to all DNA molecules derived from the patient's blood sample to see if any molecular criminals managed to escape the chemo.
Foresight isn't the only company working on blood-based tumor detection tests, which are dubbed liquid biopsies—other companies such as Natera or ArcherDx developed their own. But in a recent study, the Foresight team showed that their method is significantly more sensitive in "fishing out" the cancer molecules than existing tests. Chabon says that this test can detect circulating tumor DNA in concentrations that are nearly 100 times lower than other methods. Put another way, it's sensitive enough to spot one cancerous perpetrator amongst one million other DNA molecules.
"It increases the sensitivity of detection and really catches most patients who are going to progress," says Green, the University of Texas oncologist who wasn't involved in the study, but is familiar with the method. It would also allow monitoring patients during treatment and making better-informed decisions about which therapy regimens would be most effective. "It's a minimally invasive test," Green says, and "it gives you a very high confidence about what's going on."
Having shown that the test works well, Kurtz and Chabon are planning a new trial in which oncologists would rely on their method to decide when to stop or continue chemo. They also aim to extend their test to detect other malignancies such as lung, breast or colorectal cancers. The latest genome sequencing technologies have sequenced and catalogued over 2,500 different tumor specimens and the Foresight team is analyzing this data, says Chabon, which gives the team the opportunity to create more molecular "mug shots."
The team hopes that that their blood cancer test will become available to patients within about five years, making doctors' job easier, and not only at the biological level. "When I tell patients, "good news, your cancer is in remission', they ask me, 'does it mean I'm cured?'" Kurtz says. "Right now I can't answer this question because I don't know—but I would like to." His company's test, he hopes, will enable him to reply with certainty. He'd very much like to have the power of that foresight.
The white two-seater car that rolls down the street in the Sorrento Valley of San Diego looks like a futuristic batmobile, with its long aerodynamic tail and curved underbelly. Called 'Sol' (Spanish for "sun"), it runs solely on solar and could be the future of green cars. Its maker, the California startup Aptera, has announced the production of Sol, the world's first mass-produced solar vehicle, by the end of this year. Aptera co-founder Chris Anthony points to the sky as he says, "On this sunny California day, there is ample fuel. You never need to charge the car."
If you live in a sunny state like California or Florida, you might never need to plug in the streamlined Sol because the solar panels recharge while driving and parked. Its 60-mile range is more than the average commuter needs. For cloudy weather, battery packs can be recharged electronically for a range of up to 1,000 miles. The ultra-aerodynamic shape made of lightweight materials such as carbon, Kevlar, and hemp makes the Sol four times more energy-efficient than a Tesla, according to Aptera. "The material is seven times stronger than steel and even survives hail or an angry ex-girlfriend," Anthony promises.
Co-founder Steve Fambro opens the Sol's white doors that fly upwards like wings and I get inside for a test drive. Two dozen square solar panels, each the size of a large square coaster, on the roof, front, and tail power the car. The white interior is spartan; monitors have replaced mirrors and the dashboard. An engineer sits in the driver's seat, hits the pedal, and the low-drag two-seater zooms from 0 to 60 in 3.5 seconds.
It feels like sitting in a race car because the two-seater is so low to the ground but the car is built to go no faster than 100 or 110 mph. The finished car will weigh less than 1,800 pounds, about half of the smallest Tesla. The average car, by comparison, weighs more than double that. "We've built it primarily for energy efficiency," Steve Fambro says, explaining why the Sol has only three wheels. It's technically an "auto-cycle," a hybrid between a motorcycle and a car, but Aptera's designers are also working to design a four-seater.
There has never been a lack of grand visions for the future of the automobile, but until these solar cars actually hit the streets, nobody knows how the promises will hold up.
Transportation is currently the biggest source of greenhouse gases. Developing an efficient solar car that does not burden the grid has been the dream of innovators for decades. Every other year, dozens of innovators race their self-built solar cars 2,000 miles through the Australian desert.
More effective solar panels are finally making the dream mass-compatible, but just like other innovative car ideas, Aptera's vision has been plagued with money problems. Anthony and Fambro were part of the original crew that founded Aptera in 2006 and worked on the first prototype around the same time Tesla built its first roadster, but Aptera went bankrupt in 2011. Anthony and Fambro left a year before the bankruptcy and went on to start other companies. Among other projects, Fambro developed the first USDA organic vertical farm in the United Arab Emirates, and Anthony built a lithium battery company, before the two decided to buy Aptera back. Without a billionaire such as Elon Musk bankrolling the risky process of establishing a whole new car production system from scratch, the huge production costs are almost insurmountable.
But Aptera's founders believe they have found solutions for the entire production process as well as the car design. Most parts of the Sol's body can be made by 3D printers and assembled like a Lego kit. If this makes you think of a toy car, Anthony assures potential buyers that the car aced stress tests and claims it's safer than any vehicle on the market, "because the interior is shaped like an egg and if there is an impact, the pressure gets distributed equally." However, Aptera has yet to release crash test safety data so outside experts cannot evaluate their claims.
Instead of building a huge production facility, Anthony and Fambro envision "micro-factories," each less than 10,000 square feet, where a small crew can assemble cars on demand wherever the orders are highest, be it in California, Canada, or China.
If a part of the Sol breaks, Aptera promises to send replacement parts to any corner of the world within 24 hours, with instructions. So a mechanic in a rural corner in Arkansas or China who never worked on a solar car before simply needs to download the instructions and replace the broken part. At least that's the idea. "The material does not rust nor fatigue," Fambro promises. "You can pass the car onto your grandchildren. When more efficient solar panels hit the market, we simply replace them."
More than 11,000 potential buyers have already signed up; the cheapest model costs around $26,000 USD and Aptera expects the first cars to ship by the end of the year.
Two other solar carmakers are vying for the pole position in the race to be the first to market: The German startup Sono has also announced it will also produce its first solar car by the end of this year. The price tag for the basic model is also around $26,000, but its concept is very different. From the outside, the Sion looks like a conservative minivan for a family; only a closer look reveals that the dark exterior is made of solar panels. Sono, too, nearly went bankrupt a few years ago and was saved through a crowdfunding campaign by enthusiastic fans.
Meanwhile, Norwegian company Lightyear wants to produce a sleek solar-powered luxury sedan by the end of the year, but its price of around $180,000 makes it unaffordable for most buyers.
There has never been a lack of grand visions for the future of the automobile, but until these solar cars actually hit the streets, nobody knows how the promises will hold up. How often will the cars need to be repaired? What happens when snow and ice cover the solar panels? Also, you can't park the car in a garage if you need the sun to charge it.
Critics, including students at the Solar Car team at the University of Michigan, say that mounting solar panels on a moving vehicle will never yield the most efficient results compared to static panels. Also, they are quick to point out that no company has managed to overcome the production hurdles yet. Others in the field also wonder how well the solar panels will actually work.
"It's important to realize that the solar mileage claims by these companies are likely the theoretical best case scenario but in the real world, solar range will be significantly less when you factor in shading, parking in garages, and geographies with lower solar irradiance," says Evan Stumpges, the team coordinator for the American Solar Challenge, a competition in which enthusiasts build and race solar-powered cars. "The encouraging thing is that I have seen videos of real working prototypes for each of these vehicles which is a key accomplishment. That said, I believe the biggest hurdle these companies have yet to face is successfully ramping up to volume production and understanding what their profitability point will be for selling the vehicles once production has stabilized."
Professor Daniel M. Kammen, the founding director of the Renewable and Appropriate Energy Laboratory at the University of California, Berkeley, and one of the world's foremost experts on renewable energy, believes that the technical challenges have been solved, and that solar cars have real advantages over electric vehicles.
"This is the right time to be bullish. Cutting out the charging is a natural solution for long rides," he says. "These vehicles are essentially solar panels and batteries on wheels. These are now record low-cost and can be built from sustainable materials." Apart from Aptera's no-charge technology, he appreciates the move toward no-conflict materials. "Not only is the time ripe but the youth movement is pushing toward conflict-free material and reducing resource waste....A low-cost solar fleet could be really interesting in relieving burden on the grid, or you could easily imagine a city buying a bunch of them and connecting them with mass transit." While he has followed all three new solar companies with interest, he has already ordered an Aptera car for himself, "because it's American and it looks the most different."
After taking a spin in the Sol, it is startling to switch back into a regular four-seater. Rolling out of Aptera's parking lot onto the freeway next to all the oversized gas guzzlers that need to stop every couple of hundreds of miles to fill up, one can't help but think: We've just taken a trip into the future.