Diagnostics in Life Sciences is the Key to Healthcare – An Interview with Mara Aspinall of Illumina Ventures – AZ

Mara Aspinall is a healthcare industry leader and pioneer with a commitment to civic involvement. She recently was interviewed on the AZ Tech Roundtable with Matt Battaglia. 

Diagnostics in Life Sciences is the Key to Healthcare w/ Mara Aspinall of Illumina Ventures 

What We Learned This Week

  • Diagnostics is the key to healthcare, identifying medical issues and designing the right treatment for the patient
  • Five Levels of Diagnostics – Screening, Diagnosis, Prognosis, Interacting, & Monitoring
  • Illumina Ventures is a life sciences venture capital firm with 35 companies in their portfolio
  • Their investment companies deal in genomics, cancer testing, telehealth, at home testing & more
  • Future of Biotech will be impacted by both AI and Nanotech

Guest: Mara G. Aspinall, Partner, Illumina Ventures; President and CEO, Health Catalysts Group ; Board Member at AZBio

Mara Aspinall is a healthcare industry leader and pioneer with a commitment to civic involvement.

She is a Partner at Illumina Ventures, an independent, global healthcare venture capital firm focused on genomics and precision health investing including diagnostics and therapeutic products. Aspinall has deep roots in venture investing, having co-founded BlueStone Venture Partners in 2017. BlueStone has a strong portfolio of diagnostic, medical device, and digital health companies in the U.S. Southwest.

Throughout her career, Aspinall has spearheaded initiatives to educate payers and policymakers on genomics and personalized medicine. She publishes the popular Sensitive and Specific: The Testing Newsletter and the annual Diagnostics Year in Review. This commitment to expanding knowledge inspired Aspinall to create and co-found the Biomedical Diagnostics master’s degree program at Arizona State University, the only program dedicated exclusively to diagnostics, genetics, and genomics.

Previously, Aspinall was President and CEO of Ventana Medical Systems, a billion-dollar division of TheRoche Group, (now Roche Tissue Diagnostics), a worldwide leader in the development and commercialization of tissue-based cancer diagnostics, where she led more than two dozen major instrument and assay launches and helped position the company as a global leader in companion diagnostics. Aspinall spent 13 years at Genzyme Corporation, where she served as President of Genzyme Genetics and Genzyme Pharmaceuticals. Aspinall transformed the business from a small, specialized player to one of the top five laboratories in the U.S. while setting the industry standard for quality testing. The business was sold to LabCorp for $1 billion in 2010. Aspinall also served as Founder and CEO of On-Q-ity, a start-up diagnostic company dedicated to circulating tumor cells.

During the pandemic, Aspinall emerged as a national authority on COVID testing, serving as the principal investigator at Arizona State University on grants from The Rockefeller Foundation, creating TestingCommons.com and EvidenceCommons.com – internationally recognized interactive databases on COVID diagnostics and related research and clinical applications.

Aspinall was named Arizona Biosciences Leader of the Year by the Arizona Bioindustry Association and one of “100 Most Inspiring People in Life Sciences” by PharmaVOICE magazine. Aspinall has extensive board experience. She has served on multiple public and private company boards in leadership roles over the last ten years. She is currently Chair of the Board of OraSure (OSUR) and Chair of the Nominating & Governance Committee of Castle Biosciences (CSTL). She also serves on the board of BlueCross BlueShield of Arizona.

She holds an MBA from Harvard Business School, a BA in International Relations from Tufts University, and is certified in Cybersecurity Oversight from Carnegie Mellon/NACD.

Program Notes:

Segment 1

All of life sciences and biotech is healthcare. Diagnostics is the central organizing portion in healthcare, and consists of testing if needed. There are five (5) levels to diagnostics.

Level One is Screening – where a patient may or may not be sick, check the health status, and also could be regular check ups for something pre-diagnosed. 

Level Two is the Diagnosis – where tests are taken and then you see the results of the test.

Level Three is the Prognosis – what symptoms does the patient have, and where you  need to go from here, what will happen with these symptoms.

Level Four is a newer part called Interacting – This is where you can do personalized medicine and what’s called theranostics or drug treatment. You combine drugs with the treatment. You have to analyze what type of drug is needed. What someone’s body is like, how they metabolize drugs. What dose central levels are needed. People’s reactions to drugs is not just body size or weight as suggested previously, but could be very much based on the genes.

Level Five also new is called Monitoring – If disease treatment is over how do you monitor over the long term. What test do you take to confirm that there’s been no return of the disease. Examples would be an MRD test which stands for a minimal residue disease. 

You also may be doing things like CT scans or x-ray scans in the past, but sometimes these do not detect disease properly. Some cancers could be very small and you need a blood test. People may check in through cycles of a disease treatment also.

Segment 2

Regarding monitoring and Level Five using cancer as an example. People may go through 6 rounds of chemotherapy treatment. The doctor should monitor by round 3 and check is the tumor reduced or how is the chemo working. 

Do you want to have benchmarks to see if you’re reaching the health goals and if the medicine is effective. Future treatment might be biopsy of a tumor and testing glass to see what drug may work on it. 

Revisiting Level Four in personalized medicine you may see in the future Chino metric analysis. Check the risk level for certain diseases so you can have a preemptive process to prevent potential predisposed diseases. This is level A.

Level B would be when diagnosed with a disease, you check the tumor, mutations and genes checking both the DNA and RNA.

Mara is on the board of AZBio. The goal of AZBio is bringing educated people about biotech together to affect the state, the universities, and companies. Move research along with the responsibility to patients in the medical field.

Mara is involved in venture capital which is critical, because it funds entrepreneurs in good companies to research and create Biotech product processes and products.

There are other levels of investment, which typically start with friends and angel investing then move on to venture capital, and then private equity for really big rounds. 

She was the founder of Blue Stone and they invested in Southwest companies. 

In the fall of 2023 she became a partner at Illumina Ventures. They deal with 35 different companies. They’ve invested in all levels, biotech and genomics.

You’re looking for a VC to be specialized and knowledgeable about an industry so they can help the business grow provide it with money and add expertise.

Segment 3

Mara and Illumina Ventures recently put out a report – Diagnostics Year in Review. This report covers how did the industry is doing, what stocks earn money, what IPOs there were, financials, clinical, innovation, and mergers and acquisitions.

How does venture-capital work?

Typically you have individual funds one through five. You raise money from investors and invest in new emerging companies.

Companies may be doing research, drug development, or working other areas of life sciences.

Examples of companies in their portfolio:

Delphi deals in cancer, diagnosis test and early screening for cancer and detection test. Level one screen checking for lung cancer and what early symptoms there are. Biopsy can be dangerous so you need other tests.

Let’s Get Checked – a telehealth online company that brings testing to the patient either at home or in an urgent care or ER. This is faster and easier. Examples of test are Covid test and STD test.

Serimmune human immunity research company

Genome Medical a genetic counseling company, working with patients to discuss what diseases they may be predisposed to, and ways to not pass it to the

Segment 4

Future of Biotech

We saw with the pandemic, the rise of telemedicine with faster online diagnosis.

We will also see in the future that AI changes drug development and reading tests

The creation of better and faster equipment. The rise of nanotech, and early detection of diseases with blood samples – for example, at home blood draw.

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Posted in AZBio News.