Tempus unveils prototype cube that talks back to oncologists



Tempus, a Chicago-based health technology company, wants oncologists to talk to the cube.

The cube, in this case, is a device called Tempus One that doctors will be able to put in their lab coat pockets and bring with them as they round at hospitals, asking questions about their patients, the genetic data of tumors, and the availability of clinical trials. Think of it as a tumor science version of Amazon’s Alexa.

Tempus One is being unveiled at the company’s presentation at the J.P. Morgan Healthcare Conference Monday. Tempus is privately held, and has raised more than $1 billion from venture investors. As of December, Pitchbook puts the company’s valuation at $8.1 billion. The big question, unanswerable without more data: will the dramatic-looking gadget add much to patient care?

“I want to be careful not to oversell this on any level,” said Eric Lefkofsky, Tempus’ founder and CEO. “In my mind, the monumental achievement is that it is that five years into launching Tempus, we have enough data — it’s about 30 petabytes of  data now and growing by like a petabyte or two a month — and the idea is we have enough data that you can actually begin the process of being able to respond to physician queries in real time when those queries are complex, meaning they’re, complex in terms of genomic insights or complex in terms of transcriptomic insights, or complex in terms of digital pathology insights, or whatever, and it’s taken us two years to kind of, behind the scenes, get to this point.”

Still, Lefkofsky said, the cube, which in a press announcement shared with STAT was referred to as a “breakthrough,” was a “baby step.” Right now the device is available to about 50 oncologists who are beta testing it to see if carrying around a talking cube linked to patient data is useful. After that, it will go to another 50 or 100. The device is a new way to access services Tempus already offers, such as its data platform, analytical tools, and reports on the genetics of patients’ individual tumors.

But by the end of the year, Lefkofsky said, it is possible there will be some broader distribution. That will depend in part what the Food and Drug Administration tells Tempus is needed in terms of regulatory proof that Tempus One is helpful to doctors and patients. That will likely occur after the beta release.  Lefkofsky, a billionaire, previously made a fortune as a co-founder of Groupon, the online coupon firm.

The risk of outlandish claims is real. IBM’s Watson was supposed to provide assistance to oncologists, but ended up never being helpful at all. The billionaire Patrick Soon-Shiong had similar plans for the role his NantHealth would play in cancer, but likewise fizzled.

“We should be excited to see advances like this, but we should also be eager to see rigorously generated evidence of their impact on care and outcomes so we can be sure that they benefit patients and are not just more toots and whistles,” said Harlan Krumholz, director of the Center for Outcomes Research and Evaluation at Yale University.

Tempus will not be selling the cubes as a standalone gadget. The company makes products that are used to get genetic information about cancer tumors. But it also collects data about patients into a database that can be used as a research tool, both by the physicians it works with and other potential clients, including pharmaceutical companies.

Joel Dudley, Tempus’ chief scientific officer, emphasized that the Tempus One tool is different from previous attempts at helping doctors, such as IBM’s Watson, because instead of trying to program decision tools, it takes an agnostic approach to what data in the database are important and allows doctors to query for what they need. But just as Alexa and Google are often used to set timers or play music, he said doctors may end up leaning on the tool for more basic tasks, like asking for background on patients or finding out the location of clinical trials of cancer drugs that might help a patient with a specific mutation.

By Matthew Herper  Jan. 11, 2021