Computational medicine is a discipline that utilizes computational techniques, statistics and engineering to develop new quantitative approaches to understanding health and disease. By combining various sources of molecular and patient data, the field focuses on revealing underlying patterns in human biology.
Computational medicine is widely seen as one of the most promising avenues for tackling chronic diseases such as diabetes and cardiovascular disease. By bringing new testing techniques and advanced computation to bear on routinely collected blood samples, researchers and healthcare practitioners can obtain extensive yet extremely detailed data sets that can help to predict and understand diseases in great detail.
One of the companies at the forefront of this quiet revolution is Finland-based Brainshake Ltd. The company's blood testing method is set to transform the availability of blood biomarkers in medical diagnostics – and perhaps even medicine itself.
Metabolic blood biomarkers are a key tool for understanding chronic diseases such as cardiovascular diseases and diabetes. Currently, the risk for these diseases is diagnosed in routine tests based on 5 blood biomarkers (lipid panel including cholesterol measures and glucose). Cholesterol levels, for example, are used to estimate the future risk for heart disease.
More extensive biomarker data would help to take understanding and predicting disease risk to a new level. However, obtaining this data has been constrained by the high cost of running multiple tests for different biomarker sets, as current clinical chemistry is optimized for measuring individual biomarkers. By contrast, Brainshake's biomarker analysis platform provides over 220 biomarkers in a single experiment – for a cost comparable to a routine blood test for five biomarkers.
"This is a completely different way of doing blood testing," says Teemu Suna, CEO of Brainshake Ltd. "Instead of looking at chemical processes in the blood sample, we analyze its molecular composition directly."
This massive leap in routine biomarker output is made possible by combining advanced NMR spectroscopy with sophisticated bioinformatics software that analyses the spectral data from the sample and provides highly accurate metabolic measures in absolute concentration units. The technology removes the need for multiple routine measurements, and the comprehensive testing can be applied to all areas of medicine.
The closest existing technology for detailed molecular analysis is mass spectrometry, but it is some ten times slower – and ten times more expensive – than Brainshake's biomarker platform. "Imagine trying to process a batch of 50,000 research samples with mass spectrometry," Suna notes. "We all may be retired before it's done. With our platform, we can run through this sample set in a couple of months and achieve routine turn-around times in clinical settings."
From data to understanding
Brainshake's biomarker platform is a radical technical innovation, but according to Suna, the most exciting story is in the possibility of transforming the field of healthcare by enabling prevention of chronic diseases.
"Chronic diseases such as diabetes and cardiovascular diseases are a macroeconomic problem with a global cost to society in the trillions of dollars. 70 % of healthcare is based on blood tests, but current tests simply don't provide enough relevant biological data. Without it, there is little hope of understanding and predicting the disease risk as well as preventing acute disease events before they occur.
Suna notes that the biology of chronic diseases is very complex and systemic, but when the extensive biomarker data is analyzed and combined with information on how the diseases progressed in the patients, healthcare providers will eventually be able to obtain precise indicators that can predict, for example, the onset of diabetes.
"Where it really gets exciting is when we get to the point where we have, say, a million blood samples, each with 220 biomarkers and strong clinical data. Processing this data into predictive indicators is a tremendous opportunity to leap towards truly personalized medicine."
Genuine impact, now
According to Suna, the 'omics' sciences, particularly genomics, have failed to fulfill unrealistic expectations in finding the 'silver bullets' of medicine. "We are finally beginning to ask the right questions, i.e. how to create concrete impact in healthcare? The foundation of the impact is with technologies that accelerate prevention in chronic diseases and can be deployed rapidly and cost-effectively into current routine healthcare processes."
Suna says that the industry is also beginning to understand the concept of data-driven healthcare. "We do need big data but any data doesn't work. We need biological data with high relevance to the disease we are aiming to understand and prevent. With the appropriate biological data, advanced analytics tools can make a great impact in healthcare."
Brainshake's biomarker platform was originally developed at Finnish research universities, and the company began its operations in 2013. The company is already working with numerous world-leading universities and research institutions globally, and its platform has been applied in close to 100 peer-reviewed scientific publications. The next step is to take the solution to clinical markets globally.
"For a startup company, we are in an unusual position of having a production-ready technology solution," Teemu Suna says. "Right now, we are in the process of obtaining healthcare regulatory approvals for our solution, and the process should be completed for the EU directive and CE mark in six months."
Industry analytics have estimated the global market for data-driven healthcare at anything from 200 to 650 billion dollars annually. Brainshake's biomarker platform is currently the only solution of its kind in the market. How, then, does the company view the prospect of competitors arriving on the scene with similar offerings?
"With a market this size, having competitors would actually only be a benefit to both Brainshake and society as a whole," CEO Teemu Suna says, likening the situation to the ongoing commercialization of electric cars. "The more players get onto the field, the faster the world will change."
Teemu Suna, CEO
Brainshake is one of Team Finland companies attending Health 2.0’s 10th Annual Fall Conference in California