‘Data-driven health is going to be the biggest revolution in the history of medicine’

The Buck and Phenome Health join forces on a data-driven approach to understanding aging biology and improving human healthspan.

Aiming to accelerate the translation of aging science into clinical practice, the Buck Institute for Research on Aging and Phenome Health joined forces today in a major strategic partnership. The result is the formation of the new Center for Phenomic Health at the Buck, where the two organizations will work together to advance healthspan for all.

Phenome has developed a platform combining whole-genome sequencing with a detailed profiling of the human phenome – the collection of dynamic and observable characteristics of an organism, ranging from blood markers to physiological signals. Using AI, Phenome integrates these data to shed light on the biology of aging and its associated diseases, and to identify interventions targeting the aging process.

Longevity.Technology: A nonprofit research organization founded by genomics pioneer Dr Lee Hood, Phenome’s data-driven approach to health and disease has clear synergies with the Buck, a global leader in research on aging. The new center will be co-led by Hood, who joins the Buck as its Chief Innovation Officer and Distinguished Professor, and Dr Eric Verdin, President and CEO of the Buck. We spoke exclusively with Hood and Verdin to learn more about what the partnership between the two organizations means.

The new center’s primary goal is to translate innovative new aging science into clinical practice – addressing the huge challenges facing modern healthcare.

The Buck Institute
The Buck Institute for Research on Aging in Novato, CA.

“We currently focus half of our healthcare dollars on the last year of life, fighting diseases at a time when they are so established and so entrenched that we can only essentially provide palliative treatment,” says Verdin. “By starting early, and continuing throughout life, there’s an incredible potential to suppress the development of disease and to allow people to live better and longer.

“I think the biggest urgency in our healthcare system is the need to increase healthspan – to help people live better, longer and healthier. When I was introduced to Lee, there was this amazing realization that we are pulling in the same direction from different perspectives.”

The revolution will be data-driven

Hood, a world-renowned scientist, whose work on automated DNA sequencing technology paved the way for the Human Genome Project in the 1990s, concurs that there are strong synergies between the two organizations.

“Phenome is committed to the idea that wellness and prevention are going to replace disease orientation in healthcare,” he says. “The interposition of the Buck and Phenome is going to create an organization unlike any other, with an unparalleled ability to drive this vision of prevention and wellness. The center is uniquely positioned to translate data into understanding healthy aging, ushering in scientific wellness, and ultimately extending everyone’s healthspan.”

Phenome Health’s Lee Hood and the Buck’s Eric Verdin will co-lead the new Center for Phenomic Health.

Phenome is working on collaborations with some of the biggest sources of phenomic data in the world today to train its technology.

“Data-driven health is going to be the biggest revolution in the history of medicine, and it’s going to catalyse a transformation from almost complete disease orientation today, to wellness and prevention,” says Hood. “And that will add quality and cost savings that you will never get by focusing on disease. Because the more you focus on disease, the more you start responding to symptoms, and not fundamental causes. For many diseases, by the time it’s been diagnosed, it’s already too late to do much of anything.”

Depth and scale of data is key

The granularity and scale that phenomics brings to human health assessment is, according to Verdin, the first and most obvious benefit of the Phemone integration.

“We’re in the early stages of redefining how we assess health, and how we assess human aging,” he says. “If you go to see your doctor today, most physicians are using 100 to 150 variables to assess your health, which is minimal. Phenome is deploying tens of thousands of variables, and we’re ultimately going to be able to identify and segregate some of those key variables, which can be added to the armamentarium of physicians for diagnosis.”

The phenomic data collected by the Phenome platform includes social determinants of health, electronic health records, data from wearables and self-assessments, cognitive and psychiatric brain assessments, and blood, saliva and microbiome samples.

“We believe combining the novel computational and human characterization engine of Phenome Health with the Buck’s expertise in geroscience, the biology of aging, has the power to redefine how we age and treat – or prevent altogether – the chronic diseases of aging,” adds Verdin.

Aging biology insights

The new partnership will also help drive the Buck’s fundamental mission to build a better understanding of aging biology.

“Just consider the natural course of aging – what are the changes that are at a system level that are occurring?” says Verdin. “We don’t know – it hasn’t been done yet. Yes, there are some isolated datasets, but think about having data from the genome, the proteome, the metabolome, the transcriptome, deep immuno-phenotyping, and then add on electronic medical records and data from wearables. I think we’re going to be able to build and to identify associations, causal or not, and make inferences in terms of what human aging really is.”

According to Verdin, the Phenome platform will allow the creation of a network of all these complex datasets and interactions, and then for this to be superimposed onto existing “knowledge graphs” of human biology.

“What we really hope to do is to get a much bigger, deeper integration of all these datasets coming from fruit flies, C elegans, humans, and really get to the core pathways that will help us understand the system biology,” he says. “We all talk about it – we’re very good at generating the data – but I think there is a significant gap in the integration of the data and gaining true understanding, building causal relationships, not just correlations. Joining forces with Phenome Health is going to bring all these possibilities to the fore.”

Targeting healthspan improvements

While the “mid-to-long-term” goal of the partnership is to gain a better understanding of aging systems biology, Verdin says that there are also some more immediate opportunities to deliver real-world benefits – in clinical trials, for example.

“When you do very dense data analyses in these clinical trials, you reduce by orders of magnitude, the numbers of patients, you need to have compelling evidence for causal events and things like that,” agrees Hood. “In the future, we won’t need to have clinical trials with 30,000 patients, you can do 300 patients and get 95% of what you need to know about the drug or the intervention that you’re using. Or even just observational trials to tell us how a disease or how the aging process itself evolves.”

Ultimately, says Hood, it is the optimization of healthspan that is the major driver behind what Phenome is doing.

“We now have a powerful ability to detect the transition to chronic diseases years before they manifest as a disease,” he says. “And that opens up the possibility of therapeutic and preventive approaches when the disease is simple. There is a whole panoply of transformational possibilities.”

“I think in the next few years that this approach will prove be effective in both increasing quality and decreasing the cost of healthcare, and it’ll lead to a real revolution, where healthcare systems understand if they’re going to provide the best treatment for their patients, they’re going to have to move in this direction.”

So, what happens now?

In terms of next steps for the partnership, Verdin says that two major initiatives are already taking place.

“One is bringing the bioinformatics platform that Lee and his team have built into the Buck, and integrating deeply with our existing science, which is going to accelerate our work,” he says. “My prediction is that all biology is going to become data science. Everyone knows how to generate a lot of data, but nobody yet knows how to analyze it in a way that’s efficient.”

“The second initiative that we’re working on is a type 2 diabetes study, where we’re going to deploy the phenomic health approach to patients who are at risk for type 2 diabetes. Lee and his team already have evidence for ‘disease inflection points’ – where you measure a whole series of variables, and then you see something changing. Most diseases proceed through a series of transitions, and we think these transitions can be key to understanding the pathogenesis.”

While this initial project is focused on diabetes, Verdin explains that the same approach can also be deployed in other age-related diseases, including Alzheimer’s, osteoporosis and beyond.

“As a physician scientist, that’s the part that excites me the most – this idea of increasing the resolution, the granularity of what these diseases mean,” he says. “And then to try to sort through this: Where does aging play a role? Does it play the same role in all the different forms of type 2 diabetes? What is the therapeutic response of each of these diseases? What are the key points at which we should intervene? All of this is what we are focusing on.”