Tim Wesselman, the Chief Executive Officer of OnRamp.Bio, is on a mission to streamline, simplify and revolutionize the way we currently analyze and store genomic data, the data found within the DNA of every living thing.
You might be thinking, why is this so important? Well, this form of analysis allows researchers, biologists and drug developers to access the genomic information they need, which will permit them to achieve greater discoveries; discoveries that will benefit both individuals and society.
Wesselman spent the last two decades as a senior executive in top technology companies working on next generation data management and storage solutions (called hyper-scale). He is a graduate of multiple executive programs in Finance, Accounting, Investor Relations and Strategic Marketing from Columbia University, Rice University and University of Michigan and holds a B.S. Mechanical Engineering degree from Texas A&M University. Wesselman believes that software innovation will allow researchers to be in control of their own research, in a way that they aren't now, enabling them to operate at a speed more in sync with today's modern world's pace: A pace which is becoming exponentially faster all of the time.
After a frightening experience Tim Wesselman had with the safety of his third unborn child who was medically at risk, he became even more determined to improve upon the research around this scientific quagmire when it came to obtaining genomic results for personalize medicine and patient care. The incident concerning his unborn child further underscored his belief that the inner secrets of life encoded in DNA, especially when it comes to disease and environment, are far too important to not be translated in a way that makes the most sense. In a way that facilitates the greatest minds of our time to find the answers, cures, and treatment impacting our current and future society.
Tim Wesselman and I got into more details about this intriguing and very modern scientific topic during our interview below.
Dr. Robi: You've created the first genomics analysis software that empowers researchers, specifically life science researchers, to analyze and interpret their own data. First of all, what is genomics?
TW: Genomics is an interdisciplinary field of science within molecular biology, while a genome is a complete set of DNA within a single cell of an organism. The analysis of genomics focuses on the structure, function, evolution, and mapping of genomes, and this information pretty much carries the complete rulebook of how each person is built. By interpreting genomic data, researchers can begin to unlock the reasons certain medical ailments happen to certain people, and how medical practices have different effects on different people. These insights contribute to the field of precision medicine and will help our society advance treatment on a personalized basis.
Dr. Robi: What exactly is genomic medicine?
TW: The National Human Genome Research Institute (NHGRI) defines genomic medicine as an emerging medical discipline that involves the use of genomic information about an individual as part of their clinical care (e.g., for diagnostic or therapeutic decision-making) and the health outcomes and policy implications of that clinical use. Already, genomic medicine is making an impact in the fields of oncology, pharmacology, rare and undiagnosed diseases, and infectious disease.
Dr. Robi: Why is it important for researchers to analyze their own data?
TW: Life science researchers today all recognize the importance of working with genomic data as part of their experiments, the study of diseases, drug discovery and even advanced patient care. Yet, bioinformatics, which is the analysis and interpretation of genomic data, requires very specialized training and use of highly complex software and computer systems. It is not uncommon for life science researchers to wait 1-2 months to finally receive analysis and interpretation of genomic data for any given experiment. Yet, the advances and promises offered by genomics require that we all operate at a much faster pace. Life science researchers need to take the driver's seat in analyzing and interpreting their own data. Using an analogy to highlight the importance here: Imagine if you required a 3rd party to determine and set your eyeglass prescription without being able to actually look into your eyes? The only one who truly sees the biological problem that a biologist or life science researcher is trying to solve is the researcher him/herself. Today, they have to wait out a two-month delay while someone tries to guess what was relevant to their research. This is slowing down critical advances, that are not a luxury, but are an absolute requirement for the betterment of life.
Dr. Robi: What brought you from Silicon Valley Big Data development to genomics?
TW: While my last two decades were invested in advancing the high-tech market with Hewlett-Packard [HP], my passion and focus was always in driving next-generation data center computing and storage from big data frameworks, all the way down to the processor and individuals drives.
During that time, I worked closely with some of the Genomic Cores, including the BioInformatics Core at UCSD - and I found it disturbing and concerning that the incredible advances of hyper-scale computing that we were driving into Facebook, Microsoft and Apple were not being used to advance genomics. At the same time, I faced some of the most difficult decisions as a parent with the health and safety of a child that was at risk. While I always knew the future hinged on the intersection of technology and biology, I was shocked to notice the scope and size of the gaps that existed there. For this reason, I founded OnRamp.Bio in 2013.
Dr. Robi: You talk about there being a big data explosion in genomics. How does this affect the research landscape?
TW: Genomic data is massive, and it gets even bigger when analysis and interpretation are performed. Small files are measured in tens of Gigabytes (GB), whereas whole genome files are sized in hundreds of Gigabytes (GB). Each of these expands 3x - 5x during processing, so it's entirely possible for a single data file and its derivatives to fill one Terabyte (TB) of storage space - which is 4x more than the entire internal storage of an average laptop computer today.
For researchers, these large files result in significant complexity to move data around, often resulting in the shipment of hard drives and flash drives from location to location. Moreover, researchers should be focused on accumulating their genomic datasets into even larger collections, so that they can find the connections, patterns, and insights by looking at the bigger mosaic across all of their data. Yet today, large data files and inadequate data management clouds complicate their ability to achieve this greater value from their data.
Dr. Robi: What inspired you to create a software that simplifies the practice of genomic data interpretation?
TW: Understanding that the inner secrets of life, disease and our environment lie in the decoding of genomic information, quite simply this is the most important research and technology mankind may ever do. This work touches everyone and will have long-reaching impacts into the future. We're inspired to break down the complexity that inhibits our greatest minds from finding these answers, and in doing so, enable them to quickly and more effectively find cures and treatments.
Dr. Robi: What are some of the current problems with the analysis software currently out there?
TW: We need to reframe this question. There are hundreds and thousands of great analysis applications in existence today, and much more are in development now. The challenge is not in the existence of these tools, but in the accessibility of these tools in a framework that enables the passionate and dedicated biologists and cancer researchers to quickly process, compare and interpret datasets, past and present, public and private. All too often these software tools trade off user experience and interoperability for functionality and efficiency.
Dr. Robi: Why is it important for researchers to be more in the driver's seat when it comes to their data analysis? Is there any downside to this?
TW: Each researcher is one who is most qualified to interpret his/her own data. Before Rosalind™, the researcher had to wait 1-2 months for analyses to be completed by another department or institution. These results would usually be too difficult to understand and often required re-analysis with new parameters. A lengthy and siloed approach like this impairs insights and slows the rate of discovery.
There is also always a risk with interpretation, that someone else might see and validate a false positive or false negative.
Dr. Robi: You say with Rosalind™, the genomic data analysis and interpretation has evolved to a level which has made it more possible to revolutionize the organic world. What does this mean exactly?
TW: We now have access to sequencing technology that analyzes nearly any aspect of any living organism, and with a software system like Rosalind™, all the tools are now available for life science researchers to process the ensuing data in ever-growing genomic datasets to find meaningful answers. The name Rosalind™ was carefully selected for this reason. Rosalind Franklin lived during the time Watson and Crick were working on their theoretical model of DNA. Without Rosalind knowing, they were both able to review her photograph 51, the first ever photographic display of the double helix structure. This one photo was acquired through 100 hours of X-ray exposure from a machine Franklin herself had refined, and it was this photo that Watson and Crick used as the basis for their model and published paper, which would later earn them a Nobel Prize. In 1958, Rosalind Franklin passed away at the young age of 37 due to ovarian cancer (likely resulting from the harmful chemical exposure during her life's work). She was never recognized for her contributions in 1962 when Watson and Crick were awarded the Nobel Prize. So, getting back to why I link the scientific research of genomic analysis as being able to revolutionize the organic world, I'll mention something Rosalind Franklin once said herself; "Science and everyday life cannot and should not be separated."
Dr. Robi: What are some of the data challenges now when it comes to precision and personalized medicine (please define personalized medicine), and how are companies like OnRamp helping to meet these challenges?
TW: In personalized medicine, diagnostic testing is often employed for selecting appropriate and optimal therapies based on a patient's genetic content or other molecular or cellular analysis. The use of genetic information has played a major role in certain aspects of personalized medicine and in reviewing which therapies or treatments will best improve or cure the health of an individual.
Every person has a unique variation of the human genome and modern advances in personalized medicine rely on technology that confirms a patient's fundamental biology, DNA, RNA [Ribo Nucleic Acid], or protein, which ultimately leads to confirming the disease. For example, personalized techniques such as genome sequencing can reveal mutations in DNA that influence diseases ranging from cystic fibrosis to cancer. Another method, called RNA-seq, can show which RNA molecules are involved with specific diseases. Unlike DNA, levels of RNA can change in response to the environment. Therefore, sequencing RNA can provide a broader understanding of a person's state of health. Recent studies have linked genetic differences between individuals to RNA expression, translation, and protein levels. As previously mentioned, this form of data is large to begin with, and only grows in size after being processed for analysis. It's already been declared that genomics data will become the biggest of all big data mankind has seen due to the exponential growth during analysis alongside the usage acceleration of this data in medical, agricultural and environmental research. I'm sure you have already connected the dots that with the last 20 years of my life spent in data management and technology, I have been diligent in layering this software on top of the most robust and scalable big data infrastructure to handle this massive load of information. Genomics companies will have to focus on the data management of working with this data, not just on the tools to work with this data.
Dr. Robi: Can this Rosalind™ software be used by research laboratories, institutions such as universities or other businesses, or for pharmaceutical companies?
TW: Yes, Rosalind™ has been designed for life science researchers in commercial and academic settings.
Dr. Robi: How do you see your software changing the face of research and medicine, and where can people find out more about your company?
TW: Rosalind™ empowers a new wave of research acceleration, collaboration, and insight. More information is available at www.onramp.bio