NEW YORK (GenomeWeb) – With new leadership and a significant injection of funding, proteomics firm Somalogic is shifting its focus to the development of consumer wellness and diagnostics products.
At the center of this shift is the relationship, announced at the beginning of the year, between Somalogic and Chinese healthcare firm iCarbonX, under which Somalogic has joined iCarbonX's "Digital Life Alliance," a collection of life science companies working to develop what iCarbonX has termed a "Global Digital Health Ecosystem," which will use omics and other data to track individuals' health.
As part of the agreement, iCarbonX made a $161 million equity investment in Somalogic, which will provide the Chinese firm with proteomics data and expertise. The two companies also plan to form a joint venture in China to offer Somalogic's SomaScan assay for research and clinical applications in China.
To help execute this change in strategy, Somalogic in April appointed Al Reynolds as CEO, replacing Byron Hewett. A member of Somalogic's board since 2003, Reynolds previously held a number of senior executive positions at Quest Diagnostics.
Speaking this week, Reynolds said that between the iCarbonX deal and the planned launch this fall of a 5,000-plus protein version of its SomaScan assay, the company is at "a turning point."
"What we are seeing around us and in the environment in general is increased interest in omics, generally," he said. "And we have such a unique and powerful offering in proteomics that it makes sense to expand beyond the life sciences market and into the broader consumer health and health systems marketplaces."
Somalogic has long had internal diagnostic development programs, but in recent years, its business has focused on selling its SomaScan product as a service and platform. The SomaScan platform consists of an array of the company's Somamer affinity reagents. The current commercial version of the platform can measure 1,310 proteins, and, as Reynolds noted, Somalogic will launch an expanded version later this year. Ultimately, it hopes to expand the platform to cover the full human proteome, around 20,000 targets, not including variants and modified forms.
The company will target both the traditional diagnostics segment, as well as, more immediately, the consumer health market, Reynolds said.
"In the short term, we are seeing new companies providing information to consumers in a way that is different from traditional medicine," he said. "We know, for instance, that for elite athletes there is a great interest in understanding what is happening with the proteins in their body. And we are going to find other consumer groups that are also very interested in understanding what is going on with the proteins in their body."
As many proteomics firms have discovered, converting large-scale protein data to something medically useful is a challenging, expensive, and uncertain undertaking. Reynolds acknowledged as much, noting that while the company believes "it is inevitable that medically useful information is going to come from [its efforts], we don't know how long it is going to take and how much in the way of resources."
Given that, Somalogic plans to partner with outside companies to develop consumer and diagnostic products.
With regard to the consumer health market, the company hopes to offer lifestyle-related data garnered from various large-scale studies it is undertaking to companies looking to add this sort of information to their existing offerings, said Steve Williams, Somalogic's chief medical officer.
"The question is, are any existing channels that are already in this business that want to use some of these new [proteomic] measurements in their businesses?" he said. "Because we'll have a lot of lifestyle-related insights. Also, some of the medical [findings] could be, let's say, 'de-medicalized' into, say, liver health or heart health or nutritional status [information]."
"We're just starting to talk to a whole variety of different businesses in this field, but our intent is to start not by developing our own direct-to-consumer channel, but to say, 'Are there existing businesses out there that would be able to complement their existing product with new insights from us?'" Williams added.
The DTC testing business has proven to be a fraught one for genomics companies like 23andMe, which have been prevented by the US Food and Drug Administration from selling DTC health-related genetic tests. Last month, though, the agency granted premarket authorization for 10 of the company's genetic health risk reports. Additionally, in recent years large clinical labs like Laboratory Corporation of America have begun offering test panels intended for purposes like tracking fitness and athletic performance, similar to what Somalogic envisions.
In terms of its more traditional diagnostics efforts, Williams said the company believes that its platform's large scale and high throughput will allow it to gather massive sets of patient data from which it will be able to build new diagnostics.
Key to this approach is access to large, well-characterized sample sets. Williams said Somalogic was partnering with a number of biobanks to gain access to such samples, noting that the company would, in the near term, have SomaScan data on around 150,000 patient samples.
The company last year published a paper in the Journal of the American Medical Association on a nine-protein panel it developed for assessing the risk of adverse cardiovascular events in patients with coronary heart disease.
The researchers analyzed 938 samples from CHD patients to develop and validate the nine-protein panel for predicting the four-year probability of these subjects experiencing myocardial infarction, stroke, heart failure, or death.
In terms of discriminating between patients who would and would not go on to have an adverse event, the panel performed with a C statistic of .70, providing a slight improvement over the commonly used Framingham secondary event risk score, which was .64.
However, patients in the top risk decile had four-year event rates of 60 percent to 80 percent, while patients in the lowest risk decile had event rates of less than 10 percent, indicating that the test could prove useful for risk stratification in these patients.
Williams said this week that the company hoped to improve on its previous diagnostics efforts by leveraging the full SomaScan panel along with more sophisticated machine learning approaches to data analysis.
"At the time we did [the JAMA work], we knew that SomaScan was a great discovery engine, but we thought it was going to be too expensive to use as a medical diagnostic product," he said. "The strategy back then was to use SomaScan for discovery, and then make the smallest possible model with the fewest measurements and turn that into a much cheaper panel assay."
The current SomaScan assay, however, is inexpensive and precise enough that the full panel can be used both for discovery and as the actual clinical platform, Williams said, noting that this offers the possibility of much larger diagnostic panels than the company previously considered possible.
"So you can take advantage of new high-power computing techniques that might make very large models," he said. "You might have 50 proteins or 100 proteins in your model. We've gone away from this bias toward very frugal, simple models that used old-fashioned statistical techniques. And this enables us to embrace some of the newer techniques that can end up with relatively large models that actually perform better."
In addition to continuing work on its cardiovascular panel and accompanying metabolic panels, Somalogic is also exploring cancer diagnostics and is negotiating with a large cancer biobank to perform a study looking for early detection markers for cancer and cancer susceptibility in the 14 most common cancers, Williams said.
"That's where we want to go," he said. "We just didn't think we had the scale before, and now we do."