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Antonio Regalado

A View from Antonio Regalado

Steve Jobs Left a Legacy on Personalized Medicine

A type of DNA test the Apple CEO hoped might save his life is becoming widely available.

  • September 27, 2013

If you need proof of how information technology is influencing biotech, take a look at Foundation Medicine, the Boston-area diagnostics company that went public on Wednesday.

Steve Jobs holding white iPhone
Final slide: In 2011, Steve Jobs spent $100,000 to discover the genetic basis of the cancer that killed him.

Its stock price quickly doubled after the IPO. And one reason is surely its links to stratospheric tech names from the West Coast. The company is backed by both Google and Bill Gates, and the core idea behind its technology was once tried out on Apple founder Steve Jobs.

Foundation sells a $5,800 test that looks in detail at the DNA of a person with cancer. The concept is that a comprehensive catalogue of genetic mutations in a person’s tumor will show exactly what’s driving the cancer and help doctors choose what drug will work best (see “Foundation Medicine: Personalizing Cancer Drugs.”)

It turns out that Jobs was one of the first people—and certainly the best-known—to try this kind of all-in genetic strategy to beat cancer. As recounted in Walter Isaacson’s biography of the Apple CEO, Jobs spent $100,000 to learn the DNA sequence of his genome and that of the tumors killing him. Jobs was jumping between treatments and hoped DNA would provide clues about where to turn next.

One of Jobs’s doctors I spoke to indicated that in the end DNA did not prove key to steering his treatment. But Jobs believed that medicine was taking strides. He famously said, “I’m either going to be one of the first to be able to outrun a cancer like this, or I’m going to be one of the last to die from it.”

According to Isaacson, some of the DNA analysis was done by the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard, and his book tells how researchers travelled to California to brief Jobs five months before his death in 2011. While Broad wasn’t able to confirm its role to me (events around Jobs’s illness are still closely guarded), by the time Jobs died four of the institute’s top scientists were already deeply involved in setting up Foundation Medicine, which is based on their work studying cancer mutations.

The company’s test, called FoundationOne, essentially offers the public the same type of DNA screening information that Jobs was among the first to get. It’s a test that sequences 236 genes involved in cancer, detailing the dangerous mutations that are causing them to grow.

Google and Gates are two of the largest investors in Foundation Medicine—they own 9 percent and 4 percent of the company, respectively. One motive for their investment, I think, is that DNA is a profoundly digital molecule. And now that it’s become very cheap to decode, genetic data is piling up by the terabyte. Tech executives understand that and can see how to make a business out of it.

For a company like Foundation, which sprang out of genetics labs, having Google on board has been a big help. The search giant’s venture arm, Google Ventures, which made the investment, has helped Foundation build software called the Interactive Cancer Explorer (see this promotional video) so doctors can access DNA reports on patients. Google also lends a hand recruiting technical personnel. And it sounds as if they may be helping Foundation launch a mobile app next year.  

Just a week ago, I panned another of Google’s endeavors in health care (see “Google to Try to Solve Death, LOL”) for being way too ambitious and unrealistic. But today, in thinking about Foundation Medicine, I feel I must eat some humble pie. One reason is that Google is turning out to be a savvy biotech investor. Its $13 million investment in Foundation Medicine is already worth about $90 million at the current stock price of $36.6 (Gates has paper gains of about $30 million).

The other reason is that both Gates and Google CEO Larry Page knew Jobs—Isaacson’s book recounts their visits and consultations in his final months. There wasn’t anything they could do to save their toughest competitor. But their investments in Foundation Medicine mean the kind of breakthrough in personalized medicine that Jobs reached for could be there for the rest of us.

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