NEW YORK (GenomeWeb) – While advances in genomic medicine have led many in the healthcare field to tout the promise of personalized medicine for years, it has eluded many consumers thus far.
With genetic testing, especially, patients have little idea of how such tests work, what purpose those tests may serve, or whether they should get tested for certain conditions.
In order to address that knowledge gap, Martin Naley, with the backing of venture capital firm Apple Tree Partners, founded Cure Forward, calling it a "patient activation" company. Last month, the Cambridge, Massachusetts-based shop came out of stealth mode with a $15 million Series A financing round. Simultaneously, it announced deals with Paradigm and Cynvenio to offer their tests.
The idea behind Cure Forward is to inform consumers about genomic medicine so that they can "pull themselves through the whole process and really advance the whole field," Naley, who serves as CEO of the firm, told GenomeWeb. It seeks to do so by providing them a resource to learn about genomics and genomic testing, and if needed, possibly find a test, and then discuss their testing options with their physicians.
Cure Forward's platform is currently in private beta testing, but the firm will move into an open-data stage in September, followed by a commercial launch around the end of the year, said Naley.
In the beta stage, the platform exists primarily as an informational system for patients and provides three resources: education, trials exchange, and social networking.
The education resource contains information about genes, their roles in healthy states, and their roles in disease states, to provide patients rudimentary knowledge about genomics.
In the trials exchange resource, patients can post their de-identified clinical and molecular profile for one week, "like an eBay posting," Naley said, which will allow clinical trial recruiters to spot appropriate patients and invite them to trials. "This could really open up the world of trials to people who are getting their care in a community setting, where their doctors may not be looking and patients don't know where to look," Naley said.
Lastly, in the social networking resource, which Cure Forward calls a "Tribal Knowledge Network," patients can connect with others who have similar molecular fingerprints for their ailments, as well the same clinical history, to compare which treatments worked and which didn't, and for support.
"This really addresses the whole workflow from learning about a test, to getting one done, to then using those test results productively," Naley said.
In the next stage of the platform, the open-data stage, patients will be able to engage with it through a series of questions and answers geared toward genomic testing, as well as clinical trials. They will be asked about their knowledge about genomics and whether they may be interested in getting tested.
If the patient and his/her doctor decide that testing is appropriate, the doctor can order it. Cure Forward has partnered with about six diagnostic firms to provide genetic testing. It will not do any testing itself nor will it analyze the test, and results will be sent to the ordering physician to discuss with the patient.
For now, Cure Forward's focus is on cancer, but Naley said that it plans to branch into other disease areas, such as childhood disorders, immunodeficiency disorders, and neurological disorder — basically any area "where genomic medicine is helping to substratify disease and treatments." Also in the plans are applications for data donation, where patients will be able to forward their information to research registries, as well as resources where patients can get second opinions, he added.
Democratizing personalized medicine
Cure Forward's start can be traced back to Naley's work as the head of medical science informatics at Life Technologies. In that position, he headed several projects, including one called the Genetic Care Interchange, a network of more than a dozen institutions across the globe that agreed to share genomic and clinical data with each other.
Eventually, Life Tech realized it could not support the program "to the extent they needed to," and decided to spin it out as a new company called Cure Forward, Naley said. In talking with venture capitalists, however, Naley was told that such an effort as envisioned originally by Life Tech "was just too much of a challenge to build up enough critical mass," and he was encouraged to put his expertise in genomic medicine to other uses.
After leaving Life Tech in April 2013, he joined Apple Tree as an entrepreneur-in-residence, where he was tasked with coming up with "ideas in the genomics space that would drive genomic medicine forward."
Because of his background in genomic medicine, family, friends, and acquaintances would seek him out for advice about the field and what they should do about their own health issues. That led him to the realization that "personalized medicine is actually out of reach for most people, even though there's lots of news about it," he said.
Thus, Cure Forward was created. Naley decided to keep the company name with the approval of Life Tech, he said.
Apple Tree provided seed funding to get the company off the ground, and in June, the firm had its coming-out party with the announcement of its Series A financing and its deals with Paradigm and Cynvenio. Cure Forward has signed additional deals with other molecular diagnostic testing firms, though they have not yet been officially announced.
While the larger testing labs, such as Quest Diagnostics and Laboratory Corporation ofAmerica, have not yet joined Cure Forward, Naley said they have expressed interest. In such a competitive market as genetic testing, his firm could be one way to gain market share, he said, but such labs may be reluctant to join Cure Forward because the labs want to build proprietary datasets and don't want to release structured data to anybody, not even physicians.
"I just think that model is threatened by something like [Cure Forward] that's so open, but that ultimately, the openness will be so attractive to patients that more and more labs will have to jump on board," Naley said.
The service to patients will be free. The data is never presented to the patient in its system, Naley said, though if the patients want to, "they can drill into it." Cure Forward has not made those visualization tools yet because it would be "too complicated for us in a first-launch environment," he said, adding that for the average consumer, who has little to no knowledge about genomics, displaying a list of gene variants would be overwhelming.
While one of the prime objectives of Cure Forward is to provide a mechanism for patients to avail themselves to drug clinical trials, the company will not maintain a registry of trials. Instead, trial sponsors will be able to search Cure Forward's platforms for patients who may be matches.
Cure Forward's revenue model is based on pay-for-performance, in which trial recruiters will pay Cure Forward for each patient they sign on. Pharma firms have no commercial agreements with Cure Forward, and Naley said that diagnostic partners also are not charged a fee for being in the company's network. Cure Forward sets up the data feeds for them and provides marketing for those firms. The company has a deal with US Oncology Research to market Cure Forward to oncologists.
With the US Food and Drug Administration frowning on direct-to-consumer genetic testing firms, Cure Forward is cautious not to run afoul of agency scrutiny.
"We are very familiar with the regulations around software in healthcare and around genomic medicine, and so on," Naley said. "This system is geared in a way that we never provide any information that would influence decision making. We only make connections and provide background literacy information. We won't actually provide answers on what to do with your care.
"What we do is open up the opportunity for additional insights and options, and those insights and options can help you have a more informed conversation with physicians," he said.