The Promise of Personalized Medicine: Q&A with Gary Conkright

At TEDMED 2014, PhysIQ CEO Gary Conkright shared his perspective of how personalized, quantified health data is vital to preventing disease.  PhysIQ was recently selected to collaborate with USAID in their efforts to use such techniques to potentially control the spread of Ebola.  We reached out to Gary to learn more.

"Today, we’re on the verge of the next transformation in healthcare: Quantitative Medicine 2.0" - Gary Conkright, TEDMED 2014 [Photo by Brett Hartman]

“Today, we’re on the verge of the next transformation in healthcare: Quantitative Medicine 2.0” – Gary Conkright, TEDMED 2014 [Photo: Brett Hartman]

What is the legacy you want your talk to leave?

I hope that my talk inspires just one entrepreneur to think “outside the box” to innovate a new medical device or procedure, or one physician to dare to adopt a “non-traditional” medical approach to deliver the best care and help prevent a preventable illness.  Failure should not be an option.

Speaking of thinking outside the box, can you tell us more about the work you are doing to help combat the Ebola crisis?

In my TEDMED talk, I spoke about how the next transformation in healthcare is quantified, personalized medicine.  This involves the comparison of a person’s physiology to their own unique baseline instead of population-based norms, like 98.6 degrees for “normal” body temperature. It is now possible to build a personalized baseline and to detect subtle but very important changes in one’s physiology, thereby enabling an early clinical intervention.  Seeing the potential of this approach, The Scripps Translational Science Institute recently asked PhysIQ to work with them alongside USAID to help address the Ebola crisis in West Africa.

One of the reasons why Ebola is so difficult to contain is that once someone is infected with the virus, they become contagious well before any symptoms appear.  Currently, the best Ebola risk management protocol requires patients to self-manage by taking their temperature twice a day. However, as with many diseases or exacerbations, the human body’s natural defense and self-management system kicks in to fight this virus almost immediately to protect and sustain the body, and ultimately life. These defense mechanisms manifest themselves in changes of easily measured vital signs like heart rate, respiration rate and blood pressure.

However, these same vital signs normally vary quite dramatically throughout the day as a person goes about their daily living.  For example, when asleep, a heart rate of 40 beats per minute could be considered “normal” as would a heart rate of 120 beats per minute after walking up a few flights of stairs, but someone’s heart rate can be “within the normal range” of 60-100 but still be a sign of physiologic decompensation if inappropriate in the context of other measured parameters.  These normal dynamic fluctuations can mask the subtle changes that are a direct result of the body’s defense response.

When we holistically compare these multiple key physiologic parameters to the person’s unique baseline, the expected or “normal” physiological response can be removed, leaving the abnormal response that is fighting the disease.  We will soon start field testing in West Africa to validate this approach, which – we hope – will work for any progressive disease where early detection can save lives.

What advice would you give to other aspiring innovators and entrepreneurs?

The mystique of entrepreneurship excites the human spirit, but bringing a disruptive innovation to market is very hard work, and not for the faint of heart.  The highs are exhilarating and the lows are harsh, and the cycle time between these two extremes is often very short.  But, for those who are passionate about making a difference, and who have the risk tolerance, emotional fortitude and – perhaps more importantly – the support of family, there is no better career option.