Phenomix Sciences

By Identifying Obesity’s Key Phenotypes, Phenomix Can Positively Impact All Levels of Healthcare, from Patient to Payor




Over 40% of the US population struggles with obesity. While many people—especially those who do not struggle with their weight—may see obesity as a personal choice, research has shown that’s often not the case.

Research has also shown that direct healthcare costs in the US exceeded $480 billion due to obesity and obesity-related illnesses in 2016 alone. That means that while obesity is not everyone’s problem, it has, in some ways, become everyone’s responsibility.

Andres Acosta, Founder & Chief Executive Officer

Ross Higgins, Chief Operating Officer

Obesity’s far-reaching effects were something that Dr. Andres Acosta, founder and CEO of Phenomix, encountered during medical school. “When I was learning about all these different diseases, it was clear that our generation is more likely to die of something like cancer and not an infection. We’re even more likely to die from heart disease,” Dr. Acosta says. “Cardiometabolic disease is noncommunicable and it’s preventable, and I wanted to study it because the potential for positive impact was so large.

When I started down that path, it was easy to see that the top source of cardiometabolic disease—diabetes, coronary heart disease, hypertension—was obesity.” It would be a few more years before he would meet Ross Higgins, Phenomix’ COO. Ross was working at OneOme, a Mayo Clinic startup applying genetic markers to help predict medication response, when Andres approached the company about a potential collaboration for obesity testing.

“I was so incredibly excited by the science that Andres shared with me that I couldn’t resist getting involved,” Ross says. “I have been in healthcare for the better part of my career, but its not every day that an opportunity arises where you can impact such a significant portion of the population.” Phenomix takes its name from phenomics, the study of phenotypes, and a phenotype is basically what you get when you consider the interactions of a person’s genetics with their environment.

A phenotype also encompasses the signs and symptoms of an underlying condition in someone’s body. What makes Phenomix’ science unique is its identification of key phenotypes in obesity. The team has also developed a simple fasting blood test to measure those phenotypes in patients, and this will soon be released to a select number of clinical sites around the country. “The test’s platform, which we’ll analyze on a per-patient basis, really looks at genetics but also at metabolomics—environmental factors like what you’re eating and how your body metabolizes that food—and the body’s release of hormones that control hunger and fullness,” Ross explains.

“From those three laboratory domains—genomics, metabolomics, and proteomics, we’re able to get a much better picture of a patient’s obesity and what combination of factors could be causing his or her weight-gain.” The team credits its success to its exclusive license from the Mayo Clinic, whose technology they’re applying to develop the phenotype test. They’ve also been hard at work expanding laboratory operations, opening a new facility in Saint Paul and securing their CLIA registration. Grants and startup competitions have also bolstered the funding necessary to get their test off the ground and into the world.

“In Minnesota, we have an incredibly strong startup ecosystem,” Ross says. “Securing various grants and startup awards has allowed us to get down to the grit of product development and showing proof of concept before seeking out venture capital.” Conditions for Phenomix’ development have been near perfect, and the company is poised to help everyone in the healthcare space. Trial data from Mayo Clinic suggests that a phenotype-guided approach can more than double the response rates to FDA-approved weight-loss treatments.

“If we’re able to help someone lose a certain amount of weight and keep it off, that can improve quality of life and literally add back years to a person’s life expectancy,” Dr. Acosta says. “Physicians, in turn, will be more engaged with managing their patients’ obesity when they see improved responses. And the financial burden that obesity has placed on payors will ease as well.” “We can have a significant impact on society by improving outcomes for patients,” Dr. Acosta says. “It starts with them.”

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