The Guiding Light: How Medical Insights Can Steer Us to Better Health
I love the map feature on my smart phone. I am no longer burdened by carrying a stack of maps that feel like they could fill every library in the world thrice over. And unlike print maps, the map program can tell me if I’m about to encounter bumper-to-bumper traffic or some other horrible event. It truly is a wonderful piece of technology. If only, we could have something similar when it comes to our health. Well, maybe we do.
The market is inundated with wearable devices and other pieces of technology that can help improve our healthcare. Using personal data and other bits of data, we can have a lovely voice, vibration, etc. tell us it’s time to move, what exercises to do or what foods to eat. Technology has even advanced to the point that wearables can deliver insulin (or another medication) when a patient needs it (Amgen, 2017; Falcone, 2015). These technological advancements have provided people wonderful new ways to manage their health.
What if, though, we could see deeper, casting light all the way to the molecular level? Would we get more insightful information? Evidence already suggests yes. Consider the emerging field of proteomics (measuring the constant changes in the proteins that constitute us). Proteins are the products encoded by our genomes and responsible for what happens in the cell. Changes in protein concentrations or combinations can be an early warning of an oncoming health event (Schubert, Rost, Collins, Rosenberger, & Aebersold, 2017). To measure thousands of proteins over a very broad concentration range simultaneously and quickly, however, proves to be a daunting challenge long recognized (Chandramouli & Qian, 2009).
SomaLogic, a company nestled in Boulder, CO, has discovered a way to achieve what may have seemed impossible. Instead of relying upon mass spectrometry (a conventional means of looking at proteins), SomaLogic has developed a unique, chemically-synthesized affinity agent (known as a SOMAmer) for each protein. At the moment, over 1,300 SOMAmers are available and more are in the works. SomaLogic incorporates the SOMAmers into a SOMAscan assay to detect changes in the proteome (over a very large concentration range).
The SOMAscan platform can provide insights that are invaluable to the medical community. For example, the information gleaned from the technology provided risk scores for an oncoming health event (such as a stroke or heart attack), which was better than conventional methods (Ganz et al., 2016). In another instance, the SOMAscan platform could retroactively identify patients who would suffer an adverse reaction to a drug being tested in clinical trials. The platform even identified the organ systems that would be affected by the new drug (in progress).
The power of the SOMAscan assay is being increasingly recognized by many different researchers in many different fields. In recognition of its potential, the Chinese “Digital Life” company iCarbonX invested $161 million dollars into SomaLogic to push protein-based health insight generation further and faster (Bonislawski, 2017). In the near future, the SOMAscan platform is going to expand from the currently offered 1,310 SOMAmers to more than 5,000. It is envisioned that a version of the SOMAscan platform will one day be able to identify and monitor the 20,000 proteins that constitute our bodies (Bonislawski, 2017). By coupling the technology with biological samples provided by collaborators/partners, the company intends to deliver deep insights that carry the potential of identifying oncoming medical events, grade a response to a medical treatment or lifestyle choice, and more.
With this type of molecular vision, it is possible that individuals will be empowered to take progressive action to enjoy greater health for most their lives. This may prove beneficial in other ways, such as decreasing medical care costs by catching things early and decreasing health insurance costs because people are staying healthier longer. I can hardly wait till my phone has a feature linked to this technology. I can already hear the lovely voice say, “Alert. A (insert a medical event of choice here) is in your near future. Time to change direction.”
Amgen (2017, April 18). Retrieved from https://www.amgen.com/media/news-releases/2017/04/amgen-launches-neulasta-pegfilgrastim-onpro-narratives/.
Bonislawski, A. (2017, May 25). With $161M In Funding, SomaLogic Shifting Focus to Dx and Wellness Products. Retrieved from https://www.genomeweb.com/proteomics-protein-research/161m-funding-somalogic-shifting-focus-dx-and-wellness-products
Chandramouli, K., & Qian, P. Y. (2009). Proteomics: challenges, techniques and possibilities to overcome biological sample complexity. Hum Genomics Proteomics, 2009. doi:10.4061/2009/239204
Falcone, A. (2015, October 13). Doctors and Patients See Benefits of Wearable Technology. Retrieved from http://wnpr.org/post/doctors-and-patients-see-benefits-wearable-technology/.
Ganz, P., Heidecker, B., Hveem, K., Jonasson, C., Kato, S., Segal, M. R., . . . Williams, S. A. (2016). Development and Validation of a Protein-Based Risk Score for Cardiovascular Outcomes Among Patients With Stable Coronary Heart Disease. JAMA, 315(23), 2532-2541. doi:10.1001/jama.2016.5951
Schubert, O. T., Rost, H. L., Collins, B. C., Rosenberger, G., & Aebersold, R. (2017). Quantitative proteomics: challenges and opportunities in basic and applied research. Nat Protoc, 12(7), 1289-1294. doi:10.1038/nprot.2017.040