From Project to Product: Realizing the Promise of AI Genomics

Freenome News

In 2014, my co-founders, Riley Ennis and Charlie Roberts, and I had what we thought was a relatively straightforward, but powerful idea: to create an early-detection diagnostic test for cancer, one that would become smarter over time as it saw more people's samples. The idea was that we would sequence fragments of DNA from blood and detect signals associated with the presence of cancer through software equipped with a type of artificial intelligence (AI) called machine learning. This concept, now known as AI genomics, became the foundation of Freenome's approach in developing next-generation, smart diagnostics.

Little did we know at the time how hard it was going to be to realize our vision. Bringing artificial intelligence to bear on DNA, RNA, and protein data to detect biomarkers associated with early-stage cancer involves merging two incredibly complicated fields of research in a way that's never been done before. In the three years since we began our research, we've made incredible progress, but we’ve also had complications and setbacks that were largely unexpected, and, sometimes, impossible to even identify the cause of. We also underappreciated the giant chasm of work that lies between a research project and a fully-functioning, validated clinical assay.

Sharing lessons learned

One could argue that the three years that Freenome spent learning these lessons the hard way is now a competitive advantage that we have among other companies who are also making the trek to clinical validation; however, these lessons are also applicable to anyone who is trying to make a science project into an actual product. We're relaunching the Freenome blog to give you a front row seat so that, together, we can progress towards the future quickly and responsibly. Through our posts, we’ll provide updates on our progress and our challenges, and help foster meaningful dialogue on how to move discoveries out of the lab and into everyday clinical practice, where they can help people detect and treat diseases like cancer at their most manageable stages.

Building the right team

Once we realized that doing research in a clinical context was far more difficult than we anticipated, we began to hire key players who could fill in our blind spots. Thanks to successful funding and a large network of supporters, over the past two years we’ve been able to recruit some of the top minds in machine learning, molecular biology, and clinical research. Some of our earliest hires included clinical and reimbursement experts like Girish Putcha, MD PhD, from Palmetto; our VP of Operations, Dan Delubac, PhD, formerly of Guardant Health; Alex Rasmussen, PhD, who insures that our software is built in a clinically-compliant way (no easy feat); and some of the most brilliant scientific minds I’ve ever worked with, led by our Chief Scientific Officer, Imran Haque, PhD.

Halfway through 2018, we’re at 70 employees and growing. Our latest key hires include our VP of Regulatory, Abe Tzou, MD, formerly of the FDA; our VP of Marketing, Lena Cheng, MD, formerly of Doctor On Demand; and our new Chief Commercial Officer, Mike Nolan, formerly of Foundation Medicine.

Along the way, we’ve continued to establish partnerships with pharma and academic institutions, led by our VP of Business Development, Blandine Merino, providing valuable data, perspectives, and insights to help accelerate our research.

To ensure we have the right guidance and strategy to scale our business, we recruited a visionary pioneer in genomic medicine, Randy Scott, PhD, (co-founder of Invitae and Genomic Health) and a scientific advisory board to share their expertise in machine learning and biology. That group includes Anshul Kundaje, PhD, from Stanford, and Olivier Elemento, PhD, from Weill Cornell Medical College.

Living our values

Of all our achievements, I’m proudest of the incredible culture we are building. Trust, empathy, integrity and a dedication to service leadership are the core values that set Freenome apart from anywhere else I’ve ever worked. We voted on these values as a team, and, as a team, we strive to live them every day in our work, our hiring, our volunteering—even in how we evaluate our own performance (more on this later). Our courageous, humorous, kind, and brilliant team inspires me daily to push myself as a leader and to be the better and wiser person that they deserve.

Every new addition has raised our company to new heights in a way that I could not have anticipated. Each person has patiently taught me much more about all of the different aspects of what it takes to launch a clinical test than I ever could have learned on my own. I'm thankful to them, because Freenome would not be where it is without their knowledge and their willingness to challenge me and push me to think different.

Looking ahead

For the remainder of this year, Freenome will be focused on bringing a blood-based cancer test to market that will finally make early-stage detection and treatment of colorectal cancer a reality for millions of patients. That of course means serious work ahead, but now that we have the right resources, people, and culture in place, I’m more optimistic than ever that we’ll get there together. Thank you to everyone at Freenome for your positivity, vision, and dedication. To the rest of you, keep an eye on future posts where there will be many more learnings and developments to come.

_Gabe Otte, CEO, Freenome