“We are entering a very exciting period in precision medicine..." - Shervin Kamkar

May 6, 2020

He played in a rock band and conducted medical research. Today, he is driving the precision medicine approach and evangelizing education in healthcare.

We are pleased to introduce you to a new addition to the doc.ai team, Shervin Kamkar, VP of Business Development and Strategic Partnerships.

Shervin, let’s begin in the early days when you first discovered the world of healthcare. What encourages you to pursue a career in medical science?

Well, I grew up in a family that was devoted to medical science. My father was the chief medical technologist at a diagnostic laboratory in Southern California. I was exposed to the world of healthcare at a young age when I would tag along with him at work. During the summers in high school I ended up working there as a lab assistant, running some of the instruments and witnessing firsthand the revolution lab automation was having in diagnostics.

Once I entered college, I became fascinated by the field of molecular biology and the potential impact of DNA sequencing. It was still early in genomics in the 90’s, but the promise of what lay ahead is why I pursued a degree in molecular biology at San Francisco State University and UCSF.

My graduate work was focused on cancer biology and the identification of tumor suppressor genes in prostate cancer. This was just before the release of the draft human genome and the advent of high throughput next generation sequencing, a very exciting time in genomics. Ironically had these technologies come out a little sooner, I might have finished most of my graduate research in about 5 days (sigh).

Nonetheless, I learned about the nature of functional biology by studying, designing and sequencing prospective disease genes “one PCR primer set at a time”. It was a painfully slow process considering the number of gene candidates; but it gave me a tremendous appreciation for when next-generation sequencing entered the market and forever revolutionized the field of genetics.

Why are you so passionate about genomics?

You know, nothing is more captivating to me than biology and understanding the code of life. I never thought I would have a copy of my entire DNA sequence on a hard drive, but the technological developments across multiple industries that have allowed us to do this is really quite remarkable. I feel fortunate to be part of this field and to have entered it at this moment in human history where we are now starting to see decades of advancements in genomics benefit the patient.

I was also extremely fortunate to join Illumina in 2013, the leading DNA sequencing company in the world where I helped develop Illumina’s “Understand Your Genome” symposium (UYG).

With UYG we were able to provide a speaking platform for the top thought leaders and visionaries in healthcare, educating interested stakeholders on how best to advance genomics into the clinic. The unique thing about this program was that all participants were able to receive whole genome sequencing directly from Illumina’ labs, as well as a diagnostic grade genetic report looking at ~1,700 medical conditions.

This was a really groundbreaking initiative and after 40 such symposiums across the globe, I gained a whole new perspective, not just for the impact of genomics data, but for the breadth of omics data needed for us to build a comprehensive view of our health.

Coming back to your path in healthcare: How has your career evolved?

Well early on I had every intention of going the med school route, but after dealing with a bit of my own personal health issues in college (from a sports injury), I became more intrigued with the idea of advancing scientific research and less so with becoming a physician; partly due to my own frustrations with the healthcare system and what I saw as the over reliance on pharmaceuticals as the primary treatment options. Deep down I felt I could have more of an impact outside the system.

As a result, my career really started on the academic side, but that led me into the biotech and life science industries.

Initially I transitioned as a field application scientist with expertise in laser capture microdissection and gene expression, before I jumped into commercial sales for some of the pioneering DNA sequencing companies such as Applied Biosystems, Life Technologies, and Illumina. Once the next-generation sequencing technology matured and became widely adopted in research, I transitioned back to what initially got me interested in science, which was the clinic and diagnostic testing.

Since then I have focused on roles that allow me to interact more directly with diagnostic labs, healthcare providers and medical institutions.

I’ve been fortunate that my career has allowed me to align many of my passions and given me an opportunity to help evangelize genomics and advance precision health. Ultimately technology development in healthcare was the right career move for me, as I suspect I’d be a frustrated physician in today's healthcare system.

What do you consider to be the major problems in the current healthcare system, and how can it be changed for the better, from your perspective?

Unfortunately, because of my own personal experiences and what I view as a fragmented system between the providers, payors and often pharma companies, I feel the US healthcare system has failed many of us.

The incentives between all these different groups are not always aligned to improve health outcomes before the onset of disease, and as a result our system responds best at the point of no return. Generally speaking, we live in a reactive, intervention-based health system, not a proactive wellness-based health system.

For example, today many patients are left with treatments, surgeries and drugs that are designed to alleviate chronic pain and deal symptomatically with illness. This often leaves patients in a cycle of managing chronic pain and more puzzled than ever on what is truly causing the issue, the health issue or the complications from the intervention. It is frustrating on many levels.

Including for the physicians and providers, who genuinely would like to offer a greater level of care but aren’t able to devote the time due to their requirements to see a high number of patients. This type of system creates inequities, not just for the patient and provider, but entire families who must act as caregivers for their loved ones, dealing with what are often preventable disorders.

This is why many people feel abandoned by the current healthcare system and take it on themselves have to identify alternatives from what the experts are telling them. In fact, to truly thrive in a health system like ours, you are forced to take things into your own hands, to question and research medical information about yourself that your own physician may have overlooked.

My own patient experience reinforced this for me and without that drive to improve my own health after my injury, I would never have discovered new treatment options and would be relying on anti-seizure drugs to this day.

Ultimately what I learned as a patient is that we are the most motivated stakeholder in improving our own health and that we have to drive the decision making of our treatment options.

Now unfortunately, we can’t all become an expert on the health condition that affects us, nor do we have the time, so what really need to scale is our investment in research and medical technologies that will improve our understanding of health so the experts can better diagnosis us.

My ultimate hope is that by gathering multi-omic health data, longitudinally at the individual level, across different populations and datasets, we will improve our understanding of health and prevent disease before it manifests.

With the advancements in genome sequencing and inherited disease discoveries, there are a lot of people who are hesitant to know too much about themselves because of the fear of the unknown. What do you think about that?

I saw this first hand by offering whole genome sequencing at Illumina. Many people preferred not to know anything about their own DNA, because of fears of what it could mean for them, their families, as well as legitimate privacy concerns about discrimination. Ignorance can also be bliss for some and for others, an abundance of information, feels empowering and gives them a sense of control (whether real or not). There are all kinds of people in this world with different risk tolerances.

As you can guess, I fall on the side of wanting to know as much as possible and may have a higher tolerance for what might be considered negative information by some. Primarily because I believe digging deeper can provide clues for a new solution or prevent an illness from ever manifesting. Also, DNA is not destiny in my mind.

With some exceptions around relatively rare monogenic disorders, most of what we understand in our genome today is a complex interplay of multiple genes and environment. For most of us who have reached adulthood, in relatively good health, by getting sequenced we are generally talking about probabilities of increased or decreased risk for certain disorders.

Now there are those who fear genomic testing may give them information on when or how they might die. While this is a possibility if you uncover an extremely rare disorder, the reality is, if genomic testing can help you diagnose or at least detect the possibility of certain diseases, such as cystic fibrosis or a hereditary form of cancer, which can only be prevented in their formative stages, then the benefits could outweigh the harm.

That being said, I believe that if the clinical reporting is implemented correctly, genomics can be a cornerstone of a proactive healthcare system and that the sooner we get it done in our lives, the more value we will likely derive out of it. However, we are not quite there today.

What motivated you to join doc.ai?

doc.ai represents a convergence of some very exciting elements in healthcare which I believe in. From personal aggregation of one’s own health data and the ability to participate in medical research, as well as the opt-ins required to insure privacy and protection of that data.

On the consumer side I think we are already witnessing a fundamental shift in how users will limit control of their personal data, especially if companies are the sole beneficiary of the monetization of that data. There is far more awareness of the intrinsic value of our personal data and users deserve a slice of that pie.

doc.ai has a very inclusive model that fundamentally puts the user in the driver’s seat and lets them control how, and with whom they want to share their data. Ultimately, we will not even be talking about sharing personal data, but rather the tensors or prediction models derived from that data.

We are also entering a time where trackers will soon be measuring more and more real-time data points about our activity and health. How do we tie all this in to our existing physician records, lab data, and image scans with our environmental, diet and phenotypic information?

Tools need to be developed to pull all these data points together, but these data points have never been measured with such frequency, nor been aggregated in large populations for analysis.

Needless to say, humans simply will not be able to see the patterns and the differing effects between so many variables.

Deep learning can and will eventually, with enough exposure to information, identify patterns that we simply cannot.

Now I strongly believe this will happen sooner rather than later and that with advancements in AI, increasing access to genome sequencing, fitness trackers, and the shift in health data ownership to the patient, we are entering a very exciting period in precision medicine where consumers will drive their own health outcomes.

I joined doc.ai to have a front row seat for this revolution and consider this the next phase of a journey I have always been on.

About Shervin Kamkar:

Shervin is a business development and market strategy leader with over 20 years’ of experience in genomics, life sciences, and diagnostics. He is passionate about advancing precision medicine and changing the paradigm of care from costly, reactive intervention to proactive, preventative health.

Before joining doc.ai, he was at Illumina, the market leader in next-generation genomic sequencing, where he was Commercial Business Head for the Understand Your Genome® (UYG) symposia (an innovative, clinically responsible, experiential education symposium).

Shervin also advances the field of precision medicine as a partner in Precision Medicine Advisors, an agency focused on advancing genomics training for health care providers and organizations. Visit Shervin’s LinkedIn profile here.

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