Providence Health & Services is hoping that the promise of personalized medicine will boost its ability to manage the health and wellness of the populations it treats.
To that end, the Catholic system has partnered with the Institute for Systems Biology, a Seattle-based biomedical research organization that's exploring the connection between a patient's genetic makeup and health improvement. Its president and co-founder, Dr. Leroy Hood, will become senior vice president and chief science officer of Renton, Wash.-based Providence.
Hood's addition to the system “offers a tremendous amount of direction for us,” said Dr. Rod Hochman, Providence's CEO. “Everyone is looking at what is the intersection between personalized genomics and how do you use that to improve care for patients. We're hoping to streamline how quickly we can get things done.”
The institute will retain its own board of directors under the agreement, but will benefit from Providence's deeper pockets. Providence will fold the institute into its secular Western HealthConnect arm. The system has committed to help the institute recruit leading researchers and continue expanding, Hochman said.
The 15-year-old institute had been searching for clinical partners for three or four years when Providence initiated discussions about six months ago, said Hood, a 2011 recipient of the National Medal of Science.
One of the things the two organizations plan to collaborate on is cancer research and exploring the genetic makeup of cancer survivors.
Providence, which does not have its own academic medical center, has been building its research capabilities. The system last year formed a similar alliance with the Seattle Science Foundation, which provides research, training and educational tools to medical professionals.
Another research project centers on glioblastoma, a devastating disease that is usually fatal within 18 months and has gotten new attention since the death last year of Vice President Joe Biden's son Beau at the age of 46. Very early stage research suggests that stem cell therapy could potentially offer new treatments for the condition, Hood said.
“That's the kind of revolutionary thinking we can bring to clinical health,” he said. “Genomic medicine is really popular these days but it's really one-dimensional. What we're doing is what we call systems medicine. This approach is not only going to let us optimize health, but it's going to let us understand disease in a way no one else has done before.”
The organizations also plan to explore research opportunities around wellness, such as identifying people who are pre-diabetic and intervening early enough to keep them healthy. “We can take people who didn't realize they were on the path to diabetes and reverse their course of disease,” Hood said. “Your genome is important but it does not determine your destiny.”
A number of providers have started to create their own biobanks for genomic research as well as to invest in the equipment for DNA analysis, said Hal Wolf, a director with the Chartis Group, a consulting firm. Population health management efforts have traditionally revolved around public health initiatives, but health systems are now using more sophisticated predictive analytics to help promote wellness.
“I think of population health in stages,” Wolf said. “What we've been moving from is mass production to personalization.”
Inova Health System in Falls Church, Va., last year launched its own genomics business known as the Inova Center for Personalized Health. It has been investing rapidly in recruitment, even as startup costs pinched its operating margin last year.
The Institute for Systems Biology already has created eight spinoff companies, including Arivale, which helps people use their genetic data in an actionable way, and publicly traded NanoString Technologies, which makes tools for molecular diagnosis and translational research.
Providence, too, has a $150 million venture fund, which helps bring early stage companies through to commercialization.