Medicine has always been a science of averages. Most people in the population tend to suffer from most of the same diseases, and most of those diseases respond to most of the same treatments. If one therapy doesn’t work, doctors always have other drugs and other treatments they can try to handle individual cases that don’t fit the mold.
But it has never been perfect.
There are always outliers, cases that do not line up with expected norms and don’t respond to accepted treatments. Or, sometimes, medical professionals aren’t sure what a given patient is suffering from and is forced to try a combination of different treatments in order to see a positive outcome.
It’s time consuming, it’s expensive and, in some cases, it leaves patients without an easy answer to their symptoms.
Consider a disease like cancer. In serious cases, it’s not uncommon for patients to spend thousands of dollars on the wrong therapy before their doctor is able to adjust their treatment and see results. And, more than just the expense, patients can be on the incorrect treatment for a month or two and, if they’re really sick, may not get a second chance at finding the right therapy. They may run out of time.
This is why the idea of “personalized medicine” — or treatments that are developed and administered on a patient-by-patient basis — has always been such a desirable goal for medical researchers. Consider the possibilities: A doctor is able to diagnose a patient precisely based on a simple blood or chemical test. No more mistaken or missed diagnoses. Then, using that same information, they are able to create a treatment plan for that patient that is specifically designed to target whatever they are suffering from and is capable of addressing it in the specific person. No more averaging together the most likely solutions.
It’s game-changing, and it’s happening now in medicine thanks to work being done around the science of RNA and our shared genetic makeup.
The power of RNA
If a person’s DNA is the roadmap of their lifetime health, then their RNA is more of a real-time barometer, recording what happens in a person’s body on a minute-by-minute basis.
Our DNA stores and transfers genetic information, but remains little changed throughout our lives. It transmits and stores information about inherited conditions and other risk factors, but cannot determine whether a person will show symptoms of a particular disorder, how severe the symptoms will be, or if the disorder will worsen over time. At best, DNA tests can tell us about the probability we will someday develop various diseases — whether or not we will get cancer, for instance, or be susceptible to diabetes or heart disease — but say little about our current health state.
RNA, on the other hand, changes in response to diseases, functioning as a sort of barometer of health, reporting on what is happening in a person’s body in real-time. It offers a snapshot of what’s happening in the body right now. As such, it can provide a much more accurate view of how cells are behaving and how medicine can intervene when things go wrong. Not only that, it offers a look at both what is wrong with a given patient as well as how they are responding to a certain treatment. Doctors can use this information to personalize treatments to match individuals, as well as to tweak therapies to improve patient health.
The future of personalized medicine is coming, and RNA is offering the tools to make it a reality.
Cofactor Genomics: Using RNA to diagnose disease
Clearly, RNA holds the promise of more precise measurement of a person’s current physical condition. However, the growth of RNA as a diagnostic tool has been constrained by ineffective isolation and extraction technologies, and insufficient RNA interpretation and comparison tools, limiting its usefulness in the clinic.
One St. Louis-based biotech company, Cofactor Genomics, is working to overcome these hurdles and fully bring RNA diagnostic tools into their own. Led by three former researchers from The Human Genome Project — an international effort that mapped the human genome in its entirety, completing its work in 2003 — Cofactor Genomics is developing a patent-pending RNA isolation technology that will allow medical researchers to detect specific RNA molecules in even small, low-quality tissue samples. This will make 100x more patient specimens available for analysis compare to current methods, and will open the door to massive, Big Data-style databases of RNA information for use in drug and treatment development.
Pairing its RNA sequencing and analysis technology with its proprietary machine learning algorithm, Cofactor is helping pharmaceutical companies improve their drug development processes and allows physicians to make more accurate, personalized diagnoses. The market for this technology is estimated at $1.1 billion in 2017, growing to $2.7 billion by 2022, for a 20.2% CAGR.
Previously, the company had raised more than $4 million in grant and venture funding from the National Institutes of Health, Y Combinator and AME Cloud Ventures, among other backers. Cofactor Genomics recently closed on an additional $18 million in Series A preferred equity, led by Menlo Ventures, with participation from Data Collective, Ascension Health Ventures, Stanford University and Wilson, Sonsini, Goodrich & Rosati.