Venture Capital Goes Genomic
June 1, 2012 1 Comment
During the 1960s, 70s and into the 90s, a field of investigation arose that examined buyer’s practices when it came to the consumption of goods and services. Algorithms were developed to interrogate consumer choice. One such treatise was reported in 1994 (Carson, RT et al, Experimental Analysis of Choice, Marketing Letters 1994). What these researchers explored were the motivations and forces that drove consumption. When choices are offered, decisions are driven by such factors as complexity and utility. Complexity demands personal expertise or failing that, input from experts, while utility places a value on the good or service.
A recent report from a small biotechnology company called Foundation Medicine has brought this field of endeavor to mind. It seems that this group will be offering DNA sequencing to select chemotherapy drugs. This service, currently priced at $5,800, will focus upon a small cassette of genes that they described as “key” in tumor growth. Based on their technology they have already raised $33.5 million from the likes of Third Rock, Google and Kleiner Perkins Caulfield & Byers, venture capital sources. The CEO of Foundation substantiates the approach by pointing out that fully 150 people have already used their services. One hundred and fifty!
It seems from this report that our colleagues in the field of molecular profiling have studied the dictates of “Experimental Analysis of Choice” to a “T.” What we have is the perfect storm of medical marketing.
First, the technology is so complex as to be beyond the ken of both patients and physicians alike. Thus, expertise is required and that expertise is provided by those engaged in the field. Second, the utility of drug selection is beyond reproach. Who in their right mind wouldn’t want to receive a drug with a higher likelihood of a response when we consider the toxicities and costs, as well as the consequences of the wrong treatment? Dazzled by the prospect of curative outcomes, patients will, no doubt, be lining up around the block.
But, let’s deconstruct what this report is actually telling us. First, a scientifically interesting technology has been brought to the market. Second, it exists to meet an unmet need. So far, so good. What is lacking, however, is evidence. Not necessarily evidence in the rarefied Cochrane sense of idealized survival curves, nor even Level II evidence, but any evidence at all. Like whirling dervishes, patients and their physicians are drawn into a trancelike state, when terms like NextGen sequencing, SNP analysis and splice variants are bandied about.
Despite the enthusiastic reception by investors, I fear a lack of competent due diligence. To wit, a recent article in Biotechniques, “Will the Real Cancer Cell Please Stand Up,” comes to mind. It seems that cancer cells are not individual entities but networks. A harmonic oscillation develops between tumor, stroma, vasculature and cytokines. In this mix, the cancer cell is but one piece of the puzzle.
Indeed, according to recent work from Baylor, some of the tumor promotion signals in the form of small interfering RNAs, may arise not from the cancer cells, but instead from the surrounding stroma. How then, will even the most punctiliously perfect genomic analyses of a cancer cells play out in the real world of human tumor biology and clinical response prediction? Not very well I fear. But then again such a discussion would require data on the predictive validity of the method, something that appears to be sorely lacking.
Will today’s gene profile companies prove to be the biotech Facebook IPOs of tomorrow?