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Innovator CEO profile: SomaLogic’s Roy Smythe

By September 29, 2021August 2nd, 2022No Comments

SomaLogic is currently in the process of building in real time what CEO Roy Smythe, MD, describes as “a market for a new class of diagnostics.” Those diagnostics, of course, are based on the company’s proteomic platform, which is slated to cover more than 10,000 proteins in the near future.

Smythe joined SomaLogic as Chief Executive Officer in 2018. Prior to that, he was Global Chief Medical Officer for Strategy and Partnerships at Royal Philips, Chief Medical Officer at Valence Health and Chief Medical Officer at the technology accelerator, AVIA. Smythe also served as a surgeon, biomedical scientist, academician, health system administrator and entrepreneur.

Health Evolution interviewed Smythe about SomaLogic’s roots in the science of measuring proteins, 15 years of hard-fought science, partnering with Intermountain Healthcare, CommonSpirit Health, UPMC, University of Colorado and Emory on precision health initiatives and more.

What is the origin story of SomaLogic or the inspiration fueling the company?
It’s a really interesting story, actually. We just went public after being a private company for 20 years. The list of life sciences tools and diagnostics companies that have survived two decades without going to Wall Street is tiny.

The founder of the company is Dr. Larry Gold, who just celebrated his 80th birthday. More than 30 years ago, he discovered the science that underpins the way we measure proteins. He was an RNA biologist and knew that pieces of nucleic acid bind to proteins and cells and that they did things biologically that were important, and he wondered: Why can’t I just engineer little pieces of nucleic acid to bind to proteins so that I can use them to identify and measure proteins? Maybe there’s a therapeutic potential there? So he created a therapeutics company on one of these little pieces of DNA to treat macular degeneration and that drug is still being used today.

That earlier company was eventually sold, and he used some of the proceeds to work on another project – one to better identify and quantify proteins using this new class of reagents, and to also understand all the things that could illuminate. Larry Gold knew 30 years ago that proteins can be a huge information source to power medicine. Then it turned into a 15-year, highly technical science project to first make these protein measurement reagents and then to create an assay that can measure thousands of proteins simultaneously in complex mixtures like blood. It was 15 years of hard-fought science.

The vision has always been to take protein data to make human health and health care better. We’re just now at the point where we can actually do that. I came in two years ago to help mature the company I’m working to structure the business so we can put these tools in people’s hands, for both our biopharma and research clients as well as clinicians. We want to create a new class of diagnostics. And, of course to secure the funding to continue this work, which is no easy feat and never guaranteed.

Why are proteins key to effectively monitoring, treating and preventing disease?
Only about five to ten percent of diseases are driven primarily by the genes you were born with. Everything else is driven by some sort of genetic predisposition that probably involves many genes acting together as well as the things that you’re exposed to, so you’ve got more than 90 percent of disease that’s really not determined by genomics alone.

There’s a whole host of things that proteins can tell you about in real time that genes can’t tell you anything about. Even if we identified an obesity gene, that gene doesn’t tell you anything about how much you currently weigh, or your percentage of body fat. Your proteins are constantly changing, but your genes are static. There are 20,000 protein structures in the body and if you can measure enough of them, and then make sense out of the data, there’s all sorts of interesting things you could predict. Proteins are the structural and functional molecules of life.

We currently measure 7,000 and are moving toward 10,000 of those canonical 20,000 proteins. We can do it in a highly reproducible way and artificial intelligence and machine learning can help us look at the data and understand what’s going on in the moment and what will happen in the future.

What are the key therapeutic areas that you see the most opportunity for in the next year or year and a half?
In the next year to year and a half, I would say the therapeutic areas that we are likely to have the most impact on are the areas in which we’ve already developed highly complex protein pattern recognition tests. It’s important to know that these tests are not like regular protein tests where you measure one protein – our tests have between 16 and 360 proteins in the models. For example, there’s a combination of proteins in your blood that can predict whether you are at risk of a heart attack or stroke over the next four years, and the way we found the right combination is by measuring thousands of proteins at once and then using machine learning to tell use which ones were important.

The clinical area in which we’re likely to have the most impact in the next couple of years is cardiac and metabolic diseases. Cardiovascular risk, CHF risk and MI, risk of stroke, diabetes risk and risk of secondary complications from diabetes. And then some tests that also would go along with that like percentage of body fat, cardiorespiratory fitness and lean body mass. You can answer all those questions from a blood draw. Take VO2 max, which measures the amount of oxygen you use. It requires that you get on the treadmill and exercise to exhaustion with a mask on. I have a son who is in the NFL and when I told him we could do that VO2 test from a simple blood draw, he wanted to know how much it costs because he would be more than willing to pay for it at the beginning of training camp every year, to avoid that treadmill test.

We have renal tests that are coming, we have tests to predict your biologic risk of developing cancer. These should be available in the next year. We have respiratory disease and neurological disease tests coming to determine a person’s chance of developing or experiencing an exacerbation of emphysema, or developing diseases such as Alzheimer’s or other cognitive decline. All those things are in our pipeline.