Samsung invests in genomic telehealth company as coronavirus rages


Samsung has made an investment in Genome Medical, a genomics telehealth company.

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Samsung’s Catalyst Fund is betting the future of health care will have something to do with genomics — especially as the world battles the coronavirus pandemic. The fund, which is overseen by Samsung Strategy Chief Young Sohn, has led an investment into the  San Francisco Bay Area-based Genome Medical, the companies said Wednesday. 

The Series B extension financing raised $14 million to help Genome Medical expand its genomics telehealth push. In total, it has raised $60 million since its founding in 2016. Other investors include the venture arm of hospital Kaiser Permanente, Canaan, Illumina Ventures and Echo Health Ventures. 

Genome Medical combines telemedicine with genomics, with the aim to provide more personalized care to patients across the country. Genomics involves studying a person’s genes, as well as the interaction of those genes with each other and with a person’s environment, to determine how they impact a person’s likelihood to develop — and then battle — conditions like heart disease and cancer. It also explores how a person will respond to certain drugs based on their genes, something called pharmacogenomics. 

It’s believed that genomics can create new ways to monitor and treat infectious diseases like COVID-19. At the same time, receiving care digitally takes pressure off of overburdened hospitals and clinicians who are treating people sick with the coronavirus. About 10.5 million people have been infected so far and more than 500,000 people have died. There’s no cure or vaccine to prevent COVID-19 yet. 

“In general, medicine moves fairly slowly,” Lisa Alderson, CEO and co-founder of Genome Medical, said in an interview before announcing the investment. But the coronavirus “has served as a catalyst [to go virtual], out of necessity.”

Genome Medical connects patients with genetic experts — and does it digitally. Patients get guidance over the phone or video chats on how genetic testing works, what tests would be appropriate and what the results actually mean, as well as get help setting up a post-testing care plan. The startup plans to use its new funding to expand its Genome Care Delivery technology platform for cancer, reproductive health and pharmacogenomics screening.

About 10% of cancers are inherited, and about one out of every four individuals who undergo reproductive genetic testing are found to be carriers of a genetic condition, Genome Medical said. Overall, about 17% of the US population carries disease-related genetic mutations that can be treated or prevented. Increasingly, health care is tapping into genetic testing to determine treatment plans. Doing so lowers costs and improves patient outcomes. 

One of the best known examples is testing for a BRCA gene mutation that leads to a higher risk for breast cancer. Many women who test positive, like actress Angelina Jolie, opt to have surgery to prevent cancer from developing later on. 

“The future of healthcare delivery certainly has genetics and genomics as the cornerstone,” Alderson said.  “The vast majority of patients, as part of routine medical care in the future, will receive some form of … genetic screening,”

A whole new pandemic world

The coronavirus has changed a lot about regular life, from grocery shopping to getting haircuts. One of the biggest areas that’s been impacted is health care. Even before COVID-19 hit the globe, people had started visiting their doctors digitally. As people avoid going to hospitals and doctors’ offices, that trend has accelerated. Now, we’re “visiting” our physicians on video calls and chatting with medical bots to avoid seeing doctors in person. 

In 2018, 7 million patients used some sort of a telemedicine service in the US, and that number is only expected to rise. Over half of US hospitals use some sort of telemedicine, and it’s in every state, with more than 200 telemedicine networks in the US alone. In March, the US Federal Communications Commission earmarked $200 million to help health organizations roll out telehealth technology to combat COVID-19. The FCC said the services would be used to directly help COVID-19 patients as well as provide care to patients with other conditions who might be at risk of contracting the coronavirus if they had to visit a health care provider in person. 

Kaiser Permanente, one of Genome Medical’s investors, in mid-May said about 80% of its patient visits are now through some form of telehealth, including video visits. The health care provider, which has a network of over 12.4 million patients, said that pre-coronavirus, only 15% of its appointments were telehealth. The rest were in-person office visits.

“Before, telehealth was a choice and convenience, but now it’s one of the ways patients remain healthy with social distancing,” Dr. Edward Lee, chief information officer of The Permanente Federation, said in May. “Having both our physicians and patients go through the experience of providing and receiving care through telehealth has opened their eyes to the possibility of how the future will look.”

Genome Medical’s technology gives patients access to over 50 genetic experts who they may not normally be able to meet, from MDs to genetic counselors. Genome Medical’s genetic specialists provide care in six areas: cancer, cardiovascular disease, reproductive health, pediatric genetics, pharmacogenomics and proactive health management.  

The system makes it easy to order tests and schedule expert follow-up with personalized clinical plans. Part of Genome Medical’s service is to help patients “navigate to the right expert,” Alderson said. 

“That is tricky because genetics is super complex,” she said. “There [are] a lot of sub specialties, and there are very few experts in the country.” There are only about 2,500 geneticists in the US, she added. Most of those experts have been based in leading academic centers like Stanford University, a location that’s not convenient for people who may need genetic counseling, particularly at a time when much of the country faces stay-at-home orders.

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Before the pandemic, patients who needed care from those genomics experts traveled to those centers, Alderson said. The wait times to see the specialists could be weeks or even months. Now, that travel is largely impossible. 

“We’re moving from this era where it was super-specialized knowledge and only the most extreme cases were referred to genetics into a world where it’s part of routine medical practice,” she said. 

Samsung investments

When Samsung launched its Catalyst Fund in 2013, it had a $100 million investment budget and a mandate to invest in early stage companies focused on components and subsystems. That included companies like Keyssa, which has developed a solid-state connector providing low-power, high-speed data transfer. But the Catalyst Fund’s investments have broadened beyond simply components to areas like artificial intelligence, cloud infrastructure, self-driving car tech, security and smart home tech. 

Genome Medical isn’t Samsung’s first health-related investment. The Catalyst Fund has invested in several other startups, including another genetics health-care company called Apton Biosystems. Apton has developed a fast, low-cost sequencing platform that aims to “revolutionize the availability and affordability of genetic analysis.”

Samsung declined to say how much it invested in Genome Medical. 

“Personalized medicine is the future of care, but too many health systems are not able to provide these critical services,” Francis Ho, senior vice president and managing director of the Samsung Catalyst Fund, said in a press release. “The data and knowledge base built by Genome Medical will spur more innovation and help us focus on preventive methods for treating illnesses and new diseases.”

The information contained in this article is for educational and informational purposes only and is not intended as health or medical advice. Always consult a physician or other qualified health provider regarding any questions you may have about a medical condition or health objectives.

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