Personalized Medicine World Conference

This is the fourth or fifth year for this conference, and each year there are some surprises. The first couple of years it was a diverse collection of researchers, entrepreneurs and vendors (Oracle, Deloitte, etc.). The number of exhibitors seems about the same as last year, but there was a small booth for SAP HANA, which was sort of a surprise, but I learned they are aggressively going after the life sciences sector and Hasso Plattner was a keynote speaker. That’s a pretty good sign this conference is getting pretty commercial.

Like any conference, a few stars emerge and become familiar and repeat presenters. Atul Butte is one example. Here is his bio:

Atul Butte, MD, PhD is Chief of the Division of Systems Medicine and Associate Professor of Pediatrics, Medicine, and by courtesy, Computer Science, at Stanford University and Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital. Dr. Butte trained in Computer Science at Brown University, worked as a software engineer at Apple and Microsoft, received his MD at Brown University, trained in Pediatrics and Pediatric Endocrinology at Children’s Hospital Boston, then received his PhD in Health Sciences and Technology from Harvard Medical School and MIT. Dr. Butte has authored more than 100 publications and delivered more than 120 invited presentations in personalized and systems medicine, biomedical informatics, and molecular diabetes, including 20 at the National Institutes of Health or NIH-related meetings.

I did find Dr. Butte’s presentation about how bioinformatics tools applied to big public data have yielded new uses for drugs and new prototype drugs and diagnostics for type 2 diabetes. It was an interesting discussion of what we call big data analytics, but in the end, it just came back to making more drugs. 

When you attend medical conferences, speakers always have these extensive pedigrees, but what I wonder is, with all of the esteem, what sort of doctors are they? Are they too distanced from day-to-day clinical work to see the problems and possibilities? Are their decisions made within a bubble that excludes consideration of alternatives? That is the sense I get listening to them. 

A common term used by many of the speakers was “omics.” First we had genomics, then epigenomics followed by proteomics or metabolomics. All of these areas combine both bench science and informatics on a huge scale. The hope is that the digital examination of these minute measurements can lead to cures for diabetes, cancer, heat disease and Alzheimers.

Michael Snyder, Ph.D., Professor & Chair, Stanford Center of Genomics & Personalized Medicine gave a notable and introspective presentation about the use of a combination of omics methods to assess health states in a single individual over the course of almost three years (himself). Genome sequencing was used to determine disease risk. Longitudinal personal profiling of transcriptome, proteome and metabolome was used to monitor disease, including viral infections and the onset of diabetes. His premise is that these aproaches can transform personalized medicine. It was discovered that he carried genes for diabetes and in fact developed it during the period, but, in my opinion, failed to see the causal effect of poor sleep from repeated respiratory infections that corresponded with the spike in blood sugar. In some ways, it seems these brilliant scientists just don’t see the forest from the trees, and that hurts us.


Steven C Quay, M.D., Ph.D., FCAP, Founder, Atossa Genetics, Inc. pitched his own company devoted to obtaining routine, repeated, “painless” breast biopsy samples non-invasively for cytopathology, NGS, proteome, and transcriptome analysis of precursors to breast cancer; The use of breast specimens obtained non-invasively for biomarker discovery, clinical trial support, and patient selection, and to inform personalized medical therapy; Cancer prevention using intraductal treatment of reversible hyperplastic lesions.

Two problems with his presentation. NO ONE KNOWS HOW TO PREVENT BREAST CANCER. Also, the “painless” techniques are almost medieval. If you don’t believe me, look up “ductal lavage” and let me know if you’d want to submit to that repeatedly.

The problem is no one ever seems to use the word cure, or to speculate why these diseases exist at all. All of the research presented seems to end with the following refrain: “Hopefully leading to the development of new drugs…” Well, follow the money. 

I don’t know if I’ll go next year. 



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