Home » Lane One on One: Wild Health Changing The Business Of Medicine

Lane One on One: Wild Health Changing The Business Of Medicine

CEO Matt Dawson explains how your genes are used to craft its precision health care

By Mark Green

Mark Green: Wild Health’s website describes it as a genomics-based precision medicine company. What does that mean?
Matt Dawson: Genomics precision medicine takes a very deep, data-driven approach to optimizing health. We do that by looking at genomics first. We sequence every patient’s DNA. That tells us all the different vantages and disadvantages they may have. It is critically important to know someone’s operating system, but we also need to know how they’re performing now. So, we do a really deep dive into blood testing to measure everything that makes them feel and perform a certain way: vitamins, minerals, hormones—all of these things. We take all that information and then we’re able to give much more precise recommendations. We can actually say not what diet should people eat but what should you eat, and not what medications may work for most people but what should work for you. It’s a very personalized approach by getting to know you much deeper than any doctor ever has because we’re actually sequencing your DNA, plus doing all the other testing.

MG: We hear that medicines work differently for different people, but how much variation is there? How different are we from person to person?
MD: That’s part of why we started. My co-founder, Mike Mallon, is also a physician. We started seeing all the signs emerge that we could look at people’s DNA and treat them in a personalized way, but no one was really doing it. Then he had a difficult issue with his health: extremely high lipid cholesterol. His doctor told him to try a diet that works for most people, but he got worse. His doctor then put him on a medication that works for most people, but he had horrible side effects from it. We had just sequenced his DNA and when we started digging in, we saw that his DNA had all these specific single nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs, called snips) that made him need an opposite diet than what his doctor told him, the opposite diet of what works for me. And we saw that he had a very specific SNP in his DNA that almost guaranteed he would have this bad outcome from statin medication.

It was very frustrating that we could actually see that he needed a different diet and a different medication but his doctor put him on those things and made him worse. That’s because his doctor was doing what we do in medicine today, which is base treatments on statistics and epidemiology that works for most people. When we say in medicine that evidence shows this treatment works, we’re saying it works for most people—60%, maybe 70, maybe 80%—but not everyone. We saw that that variation led to significant differences in his treatment. That was our ‘ah-ha moment’—why is not all of medicine like that? That’s when we started doing it in earnest.

The issue with medicine is that it’s usually about 10 to 20 years behind the evidence. Once we see something is possible, medicine moves slowly. We had been seeing this and studying it and were thinking, ‘Why is this not coming out?’ Then we had our own experience; that takes it to another level. Actually seeing it and feeling the results is what motivates people to do things a lot of times, and that’s what motivated us.

MG: So, your colleague’s health condition is what triggered the action to form a company and try this out as a business?
MD: It did. And we had dozens of other experiences. Before we started doing this for everyone in the public, we applied it to ourselves and family members and friends and others who trusted us. We had some pretty incredible experiences with a family member of mine, for example, who had Alzheimer’s and dementia and was going downhill pretty quickly. When we started treating her this way, she had a very nice improvement. Other family members who were at high risk for other conditions really improved when we took this holistic approach. We had a lot of these stories. Those are anecdotes, though; they’re not evidence.

We’re even more excited about it now that we’ve treated thousands of patients who actually have outcome data. For example, in our diabetic patients, over six months we get about 30% reduction in hemoglobin A1C, which is better than what we normally see in medicine. In cardiovascular risk factors, risk factors for dementia, lipids and inflammation, we see significant improvements in about six months. We had the hunch. We saw the evidence. We had the personal experiences. Now with thousands of patients, we’ve gotten really great outcome data as well.

MG: The Wild Health website has a statement saying that the traditional model of medicine is broken. What does that mean?
MD: One, it’s reactive; we think of (the traditional model) more as a sick care system. When you’re sick, go to traditional medicine. We have great treatments in the emergency department, surgery, all these things. But it is very reactive and a lot of times that’s too late. If you’re not sick and you go to your doctor now, there’s not much they can do for you; come back when you’re sick. We’re proactive. We’re trying to optimize people’s health and prevent them from getting sick.

Secondly, right now if you are sick, you can you go to your doctor and they’ll tell you what to do, what works for most people. That’s how studies are done; they study 1,000 people, see what works for most of them, and then apply that to everyone. Whereas, if you take this very deep dive, data-driven approach and actually look at people’s DNA and bloodwork and collect all this information, then you can be much more precise with the recommendations.

MG: How does Wild Health fit into the broader landscape of health care in Kentucky? It sounds like you’re more focused on wellness. If someone is sick, do you manage or coordinate care?
MD: We do. We are physicians. We can prescribe. We can treat someone just like their regular doctor can. If you get sick or injured, we certainly take care of that just like a primary care doctor would, except we do much more on the front end of preventing, actually looking at what risk factors you have with your DNA and genetics. What are you at risk of dying from or getting sick from? We try to prevent that by being proactive. We certainly treat and coordinate like a regular primary care doctor, but we try to get people to not get in that situation in the first place.

MG: Does Wild Health have partnerships with other health care entities like hospitals or specialists who might treat the conditions your patients have?
MD: Right now, we refer to specialists around the state, whoever we feel are the best to treat them (but have) no specific partnerships.

MG: The website describes Clarity as “the world’s first true precision medicine algorithm.” What does a precision medicine algorithm do?
MD: When we started doing precision medicine, it was difficult. With our first patients I would have hundreds of pages in front of me and I would look at all their DNA data and blood work, trying to put together a plan. It could take 10 hours just in prep time. We saw the need very early to use technology to crunch the data. We hired a data scientist and software engineers.

Right now, we have about 20 full-time software engineers and over the last two years we have built this algorithm. It was an incredible investment in time and resources, and we added a lot of artificial intelligence as well. We’re working with a company that was recently named the most innovative AI (artificial intelligence) company in the world to apply a lot of machine learning to the algorithms.

It basically takes that data, the hundreds of thousands of DNA SNPs that we look at, the incredible amount of blood work, all the patient information and lifestyle questions, and puts all of that into a system. It then gives these suggestions that the physician and the client can look at and see what is right for that patient. It’s not practicing medicine. It’s doing all the data crunching and then enabling the physician to make these much more precise recommendations.

MG: Are you also building your own new database of how to treat people using genomics and precision medicine? The more patients you get, the better it will be?
MD: That’s exactly right. It started out with us just translating the science. There are thousands of studies out there (on genomic medicine). We just translated the science, fed all the algorithms into the computer and then we’re delivering care. That’s where we’ve gotten the amazing outcomes related to metabolic health and cardiovascular health. However, as we’re gaining thousands of patients, the machine learning and AI will start to kick in and the recommendation will be even better. We hope to be able to not just translate this science and deliver to people, but actually start creating some science as well now that more and more people are coming in.

MG: Do you envision it turning into a new branch of medicine?
MD: We believe very strongly that this is how medicine should be practiced, period. And we’re at the very beginning stages of it. But based on the results we’ve seen, this is just how medicine should be practiced. It’ll take a while to get there, but we’re very hopeful that with our partnerships with this publicly traded tech company and others that we’re working with, this accelerates quite a bit in the next few years.

MG: Is anyone else working in this field? Are there other companies similar to Wild Health out there?
MD: There are a lot of companies that sequence DNA and look at genomics. The difference is that we take a very holistic approach. You may have heard the saying that ‘DNA is destiny,’ but we like to say it’s not at all. DNA is a small part of your outcome. It is a very important and critical piece, but we also need to know about your lifestyle, what you eat, when you eat, who you eat with, how you sleep, what supplements you may take, what kind of exercise. All of this is critically important. We believe we’re the only company taking a very holistic approach and combining the genomics and actually providing care to patients right now.

MG: It was big news in 2003 that we had finally sequenced the human genome. It was a 10-year project and a big deal for science. How long does it take to run a human genome now and interpret the results?
MD: It’s definitely not billions of dollars like the first one was and it is not a decade of work. We get results back in less than a few weeks, and when you first start with Wild Health it costs about $200. That covers all the costs of the DNA sequencing that we do, all the SNPs that we look at. So it’s quite affordable and quite fast at this point.

MG: What medical conditions does Wild Health key in on or prioritize when it runs a patient genome? Can it tell me if I’m going to develop cancer or have a heart attack?
MD: We can look at risk factors. We focus on things that are most likely to kill us as Americans, which is cardiovascular disease, heart attack and strokes, cancer, dementia. Those are the big ones that we really want to prevent, and we can learn a lot from your genome. When we sequenced the DNA of a very close family member of mine, we saw that she had an APOE4 gene, which means she was at a much higher risk of developing dementia. And her mother had passed away from dementia. Being very worried about that, we really dialed in on all the other risk factors: her insulin resistance, metabolic health, inflammation, all these things. Within three months she lost 40 pounds, reversed her insulin resistance and said that she felt 40 years younger. We know that being able to decrease all those other risk factors greatly reduced her risk of getting dementia like her mother. We can identify these risk factors and then focus in on the lifestyle interventions that are going to prevent it later.

MG: Will health care improve as the medical community builds up a broader database of human genomes and precision treatment outcomes?
MD: Absolutely. We will start to see what works for specific people. We already have an incredible amount of evidence. We know that certain medications work for some people and don’t for others, and that’s a factor of genetics a lot of times. For example, even just a supplement like Omega-3 oil. Your physician may say you’re going reduce your cardiovascular risk by taking this Omega-3 fatty acids supplement. Well, maybe. But there actually is a specific DNA variant, a SNP that’s been identified in the last year, that increases risk if you (have it and) take that supplement. Also, things as simple as caffeine—we have thought for decades that caffeine helps athletic performance. The studies show it helps 80% of people but we found in the last several years that if your genetics show you’re a slow metabolizer, caffeine will hurt your athletic performance. When it comes to supplements, medication, food, your genetics really matter and we’re finally able to dial in on that. Our medical treatments and advice will certainly improve.

MG: There are significant blood assessments Wild Health does. How does that fit together with the genomics? What are the goals of the blood testing panels?
MD: That’s critically important to tell us where you are right now. The genomics are your potential and risk factors. The blood testing tells us how your health is right now, and what things we need to correct for you right now.

To use another supplement example: We look at your genetics and you may have a VDR ‘snip,’ meaning you may need more Vitamin D. Then we use your blood work to see what your vitamin D level is. Is it already adequate or not? We also need to know about your lifestyle: Are you in Florida in the summer—meaning you get a lot more vitamin D from the sun—or are you in Alaska in the winter? The blood work is critically important, but it’s a piece of the puzzle just like the DNA is critically important but is a piece of puzzle. They’re all critically important.

MG: What are the most common health conditions you identify?
MD: We frequently identify risk factors for certain types of cancer, heart disease, dementia. With the blood testing we frequently uncover a lot of inflammatory or metabolic issues. Metabolic health is incredibly important for preventing disease and how you feel. The most common things are identifying the risk factors with genetics and then with the blood identifying metabolic and inflammatory issues we want to fix as quickly as possible.

MG: Who determines the balance that you look to achieve for a patient? How do you put the pieces together and come up with the recommendations?
MD: This is very patient driven. When we’re seeing someone, we first ask, ‘What are your goals? What are the things you want to prevent? How do you want to feel?’ It’s going to be based on that to start. Then the recommendations we make to get you to that goal are going to be based on this really deep data-driven understanding of you. If you say you want to lose weight or prevent cancer or just feel better or sleep better, we’re going to give you recommendations to get there. But the recommendations are going to be for you and you alone, based on your DNA, blood work and all that information.

MG: In other interviews you emphasize that getting proper sleep and having more interaction with nature can restore or re-activate the body’s normal regulatory systems. What health benefits do clients see as a result of better sleep and more nature interaction?
MD: There are very few things more important for health than sleep. One study showed if you are getting less than six hours every night, you increase your risk of death over the next 10 years by four times. And we know that decreased sleep increases risk of heart attack, stroke, depression, anxiety. Every year at daylight savings—when we lose an hour of sleep—rates of heart attack and stroke spike the next day. It’s just critically important.

We know it affects our performance. There was a great study of NCAA basketball players where they randomized half the team to get adequate sleep and the other not. The ones who got better sleep, their free-throw percentage went up by 9%, three-point shooting went up by 9%, their sprint times improved, and their mood throughout the season improved with less depression and anxiety.

These risk factors are tremendous if you don’t get enough sleep, and the performance improvement—how you feel—is tremendous if you do. So, we really focus on sleep with our patients. We measure it with them and give recommendations specifically for them.

When it comes to nature, nature is a fascinating topic. We don’t talk about in Western medicine very much, but there was a really cool study of patients who had gallbladder surgery. They were randomized and half of them had a window that looked at trees and the other half did not. The ones who were looking at trees decreased their recovery time and got out of the hospital more quickly. Spending time in nature—just 15 to 20 minutes at a time three times a week—increases natural killer cell function, which improves your immune system, improves mood, and has all these other effects on blood pressure and other things.

That’s part of the reason why the word “wild” is in our name. It partly has to do with the wild stuff we’re talking about with genomics and cutting-edge science. The other part is reconnecting people to nature because we know there’s a really big benefit to that.

MG: You also focus on inflammation. How much human illness do you attribute to inflammation in the body?
MD: A lot. You may have heard the term a lot of people are using, which is “inflamm-aging” because inflammation drives all of aging. It really increases your risk factors for diseases of aging like cancer and heart attack, stroke and dementia. All these things are inflammatory diseases. We try to help patients reduce that, and you do that by diet. There are certain foods that are much more inflammatory. We know if we decrease this chronic inflammation, we will certainly decrease the risks for those very bad diseases.

MG: How much of a role does sugar play in inflammation?
MD: Quite a bit. While everyone has genetic variation, sugar is going to have a pretty negative effect on pretty much everyone. We don’t need DNA sequencing to tell you to reduce your sugar intake. It’s a pretty harmful substance in the quantities that we eat it.

MG: Your company is only a few years old. What size are you in number of employees and locations?
MD: We’re in all 50 states now. We have expanded quite rapidly in the last several years. When you explain to people that you can actually personalize their treatment, they get it and they want to be seen that way. We have about a dozen providers in our workforce. We’re expanding quite a bit. The largest number of patients are still here in Kentucky where we’re based, but we’re all over the U.S. at this point. We have patients or clients in 50 states.

Another advantage we have is that we’re all virtual and telemedicine; you don’t have to spend time driving to an office, waiting in a waiting room, and waiting on the physician to see you for a few minutes. It’s from your home or work or on vacation; wherever you are we can see you. Our physicians have licenses in all 50 states.

MG: How do you do a run a genome by telehealth?
MD: It’s quite easy. A little box arrives in the mail, you spit in it—we collect some saliva—and you send it back. And we sequence your DNA. It’s in comfort of your own home.

MG: How do you characterize the progress in growing your client base so far?
MD: It’s been phenomenal. We have thousands of patients. One of the issues we’ve had is that there are more patients who want this than there are providers, because this is a new thing. We don’t get training in medical school in genomics. We had to teach ourselves, so to solve that problem we have created a fellowship program. We have a 12-month educational program to train other doctors and health coaches as well. We also have created software to help other doctors practice this way in the future.

We grew very quickly, but we’re having to work on both the patient side and the provider side to train enough providers to do it. We’re always happy to meet other providers who are interested in practicing
this way.

MG: The Wild Health website presents three care-plan levels that start at approximately $1,500 a year and go up to $3,600 a year. Is there a target clientele? Is anyone a candidate to become a client?
MD: Our target clientele is someone who really wants to optimize their health, who is committed to actually getting healthy and staying healthy and preventing a lot of these bad things from happening. There’s no target when it comes to age or sex or anything like that. We have people from their 20s to their 90s. Anyone who wants to be proactive and wants to optimize themselves and not just be in a reactive system is the optimal client for us.

MG: Does health insurance cover what Wild Health does?
MD: Right now it doesn’t. We’re working very hard right now to fix that and think by 2023 we will be able to accept insurance for the majority of what we do. For now, it’s for people who want to make that investment in their health and not just depend on what insurance covers.

Accessibility is very important to us. We want anyone who wants this to be able to get it in the future. What we do is very robust and it’s expensive to deliver, so we’re hoping that insurance will be covering it next year. Right now, insurance is mostly covering sick care.

MG: You initially were in emergency medicine and then for years you’ve been an instructor in performing sonography. How did that background bring you to today’s position where you’re a unique, multifaceted entrepreneur?
MD: Emergency medicine I loved and enjoyed. It was exciting. However, it starts to get frustrating to see patients over and over again with the same problems; we’re putting on a Band-Aid and sending them back out. Once I saw the science emerging that we could prevent a lot of this, that became much more interesting to me. I never lost my love for emergency medicine. I just found a greater love in genomics and optimizing people’s health instead of saving them at the last minute.

MG: Most people are familiar with Wild Health through the role it played in providing COVID-19 testing. How did that happen?
MD: That was kind of an accident. We had patients who needed tests and at the very beginning of the pandemic, we couldn’t get a test. One of our team members has a Ph.D. in infectious disease and knew how to run the test, so we started doing it just so our patients would have access. But of course, their friends and family wanted tests too. Then that just spread. We started getting calls from companies, from horse farms, and then the University of Kentucky—just because we could do it. More and more people needed and wanted them, and we ended up doing a lot of tests.

We are continuing to do it, but now we’re doing a model where we come to people’s homes when they need it. We’ve been at these community sites for the last couple of years. A lot of people don’t have access or can’t come or don’t want to. We have all these people that can do the testing. We have a lab. Now we’re going to be focusing on providing very convenient care.

MG: How did Wild Health manage to be so successful at staffing up quickly to do this testing? You seem to be able to achieve what others couldn’t.
MD: We have an incredible team. Dr. Luke Murray basically ran all that. He and his team did an incredible job. They saw there was a tremendous need, and they worked extremely hard to meet it. Finding people to help with that during the pandemic was not as difficult as you would think. People are interested in helping in such a fearful time. They worked incredibly hard and we’re very proud of what they were able to do.

MG: If another medical entity or individual wants to connect with, get involved or work with Wild Health, is it something you’re interested in?
MD: It is. We’re always interested in relationships and collaborating. Anyone could always reach out to me at [email protected] and I’d love to connect.

MG: Shifting gears a little, you are also one of the principals in The Kentucky Castle, the boutique hotel with a farm-to-table restaurant, and for five years you’ve been the chief farming officer. How did that come about and is it linked to your medical interests?
MD: I’ve actually been the CEO for the last four-plus years but in the last year I ‘promoted myself’ from CEO to chief farming officer. I did that very deliberately to send the signal that farms are really important, and that that’s the focus (at The Kentucky Castle). It is related to my interest in health. With The Castle, we wanted to teach people where their food comes from—not the grocery store but from the soil. We grow about 80% of the produce we serve in the restaurant. We’re starting to raise more of the protein we serve in the restaurant as well. That title chief farming officer is about helping people focus on their health by eating quality local food.

MG: You are also essentially the CEO of the castle. How did you get involved in this specialized element of hospitality?
MD: I had been putting on a medical conference at The Castle. We’ve been putting them on for about 10 years now. I got to know the property that way. Five years ago, when we purchased The Castle, the reason I was interested in it was because of the farming. As the lead investor on it, the CFO title comes from really trying to improve The Castle and get it where it needs to be. Over the last several years we’ve had incredible leadership there. Christie Eckerline (chief operating officer) and RJ Bilinovic (general manager) have been running The Castle, so they deserve all the credit for the turnaround and for everything that’s happened out there, not me. They’ve done a great job.

MG: What’s the long-term vision for The Castle?
MD: The focus is going to be more and more on the farm and connecting people to nature and to their food. We hope to do more educational things around the farm. We have an incredible farm manager in Toni Myers, who does a great job. It’s going to be focusing more on the farm aspects.

MG: Regarding health care, what piece of advice would you offer individuals or to the broader medical community about where we are right now?
MD: One of my favorite quotes is, “The future is here. It’s just unevenly distributed.” The future in genomics is here. It’s going to get better and better. I think in five to 10 years we’re going to look back and be almost embarrassed with where we are now. But it’s still much more advanced and better than the traditional system. I would encourage any providers out there to look into it and start getting ahead. For patients, I would encourage you to take a proactive approach to your health. This is the one body you have, and if you don’t take care of and invest in and focus on it, nobody else is going to. I encourage you to take a proactive approach to your health.

MG: How do you foresee the impact of genomic medicine affecting the way the medical business operates?
MD: We know the things that cost a lot. It’s these big bad diseases like metabolic health. As the science is emerging, the big insurance companies, the payers and people who are responsible for care are probably going to start demanding this because we show that we get better results, that we decrease things like cancer and heart attack and stroke and dementia—those massive drivers of the cost of care. The fact that we can do a better job, get better results, hopefully prevent these things or at least delay them—that’s going to really drive the adoption of this and change the business of medicine.

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