A new company has settled at Hartford Hospital to answer an old question: What role does genetics play in determining how a patient loses weight or responds to exercise?
And can doctors use this information to help patients stave off obesity, diabetes and heart disease? The answers could result in better health for patients and profits for Genomas, the new venture by Dr. Gualberto Ruano, the Yale-trained entrepreneur who launched Genaissance Pharmaceuticals in New Haven. He left the company last fall to start Genomas.
Ruano and hospital officials said they expect their collaboration to tell them what combination of diet, exercise, medication or other treatment will result in better health for patients, based on each person's unique genetic composition and medical history.
``If this thing works, it's really pretty amazing technology,'' Hartford Hospital Chief Operating Officer Kevin Hannifan said. ``If you've been on a diet, as I have, it's trial and error. You don't know if it's going to work or not. Sometimes people respond to exercise, and sometimes they don't.''
The siting of Genomas at the hospital, which was announced Monday, lets researchers marry state-of-the art genetics research with patient care, they said.
The privately held company follows in the path of a small handful of other companies, such as the health insurer MedSpan, now owned by Oxford Health Plans Inc., that got started at Hartford Hospital.
Hospital officials said they don't intend to incubate new companies, but they will take a chance if a good business comes their way. ``We don't have a strategic plan. We're just opportunistic,'' Hannifan said.
Genomas opened in the Florence Crane building, a recently renovated 1930s-era brick structure that is one of the oldest buildings at the hospital.
Ruano has set up shop in a beige corner office on the ground floor with a beige desk and a beige computer. Two large panels of artwork wait to be hung, and the only other adornment is a framed picture of Ruano's twin infant sons.
Elsewhere on the same floor, Ruano found a rarity in Connecticut: rentable laboratory space. It turns out that the hospital had renovated the labs recently in preparation for another project that fell through.
Ruano leased the labs and the rest of the ground floor from the hospital, where he was already collaborating on exercise research with Dr. Paul Thompson, director of preventive cardiology.
``This has been an incredible alignment of the stars,'' Ruano said.
Through their working partnership, which includes agreements on licensing intellectual property they develop, Ruano and hospital researchers hope to find out how genetics and the environment shape human health.
This would help them craft better treatments for patients suffering from metabolic syndrome, which can lead to obesity, heart disease and diabetes.
Health officials estimate that 20 to 25 percent of the adult American population suffers from metabolic syndrome, which is characterized by raised blood pressure, excessive fat in the abdominal area, and blood fat disorders such as low HDL cholesterol (the ``good'' cholesterol).
That would translate into 520,000 to 650,000 adults in Connecticut, according to the state chapter of the American Heart Association.
Genomas is working to discover genetic markers that determine how people respond to diet and exercise regimens, and to incorporate that information into treatments for patients.
The result will not be a prescription pill, but information, Ruano said, that will be placed into a computer database for physicians to use, via an easy-to-negotiate menu of options.
Ruano is still in the midst of research to develop the Genomas database, but he said that if all goes well Genomas could offer its first physician consults in 2005.
Ruano envisions a scenario in which a patient goes to see a doctor and a blood sample is drawn that is sent to Genomas for analysis. The physician still gets a patient's medical history and performs an exam, and any other tests deemed necessary.
The results from Genomas would then tell the physician whether the patient has genetic markers making him or her responsive to therapies such as diet and exercise. The physician would take that information into account before recommending a course of action for the patient.
``Some people think genetics should be 100 percent predictable,'' Ruano said. ``Well, no, it's not. You're 55 years old. You're not a baby. It affects how you react to things.''
Ruano said the company's technology would work with the existing doctor-patient relationship to improve patient results. ``We're building from the clinic up, rather than the lab down,'' he said.
He projects the cost per consult to be $500 to $1,000, a cost that he hopes insurance companies will eventually pay. He said that compares favorably with the $3,000 per consult that companies specializing in other diseases, such as cancer, expect to charge for access to proprietary information in their own databases.
Ruano is now searching for $3 million to $10 million in venture financing to grow the company, which has three employees in addition to Ruano. One works on research, another on administration and the third runs the office. Ruano is financing the company himself, with some grant money thrown in.
Dr. Neil Yeston, Hartford Hospital's vice president of academic affairs, called Ruano's work ``really neat stuff.''
``He is involved in medicine with a future, and we believe that the proximity of his company and his intellectual curiosity, and the fit with our physicians who have similar interests, will be a win for all,'' Yeston said.