by Constantine von Hoffman
The word revolutionary is used far too often, especially when talking about technology. Remember all the hype around the Segway? It was going to revolutionize personal transportation. Experts predicted that cities would have to reorganize their streets to accommodate them. While the little two-wheeled scooter is useful in particular circumstances and a lot of fun to ride, it remains, for the most part, a solution in search of a problem. For something to be truly revolutionary, it has to overturn the established order and transform how things are done.
Considering that, it is hard to look at what John Q. Walker is doing and not think that he could be revolutionizing medicine.
What is he doing?
He’s come up with a technology that eliminates a huge amount of the guesswork involved in diagnosis. Doing that means fewer expensive tests and a huge reduction in doctors prescribing medicines that patients don’t need.
While this may seem like an extraordinary claim, it becomes less of one if you know Walker and what he’s already accomplished.
Walker is 60 and lives in Raleigh, North Carolina. Prior to moving there, he was living in Rochester, Minnesota, and working for IBM. He got his start with the company in an unusual way. First, in the late 1970s during what would turn out to be his last semester of graduate school, he taught himself to be a computer hacker. At the same time, IBM was building a highly secure, completely new computer in Rochester.
“And so I had a job at IBM, and eight hours a day, I would come in and break into our top-secret computer and tell them how I did it, every single day, day in and day out,” he says. “This was at a time when the word hacker wasn’t known. No one had any experience at this. And it made my career at IBM.”
After a few years at IBM, he realized he wanted to pursue his Ph.D., and the company offered to send him anywhere he wanted to go to get it. The place he wanted to go was the University of North Carolina, to study computer science under Dr. Fred Brooks, chair of the department at that time. That’s where he earned his doctorate in software engineering.
During and after that time, he worked at the IBM facility in Research Triangle Park that specialized in data communications.
“It was 1981. It was a world of mainframe computers, which is not where I wanted to focus,” he says. “I wanted to work on local area networks and wireless technologies … and so they let me.” With the Internet era just over the horizon, it was a prescient decision.
In 1995, he and three colleagues left IBM to found Ganymede Software, a company that made software that measured how fast computer networks pass data around. This software went from esoteric to essential a year later. That’s when the International Telecommunication Union started planning the first standards for voice communications over the Internet. What did Ganymede’s software do? It let telecommunications providers determine how well their networks handled Voice over Internet Protocol (better known as VoIP) calls. Not only did Walker and his co-founders nail when to start the company, they did the same when it came to selling Ganymede. That happened on March 10, 2000—the day the NASDAQ index hit its highest point.
Following that, Walker returned to one of his first loves: music. As a teen he had taken piano lessons from one of his neighbors, Ruth Slenczynska. She wasn’t just a nice lady who happened to live on the same street. She had been a child prodigy who studied under famed Russian pianist, composer, and conductor Sergei Rachmaninoff. Although Walker’s piano playing wasn’t serious (“I was a natural who never practiced, so I was never very good”), his love of music was. This helps explain his next company, Zenph Sound Innovations, which he started with one of Ganymede’s co-founders.
“The two of us had the time and the resources to go solve the hardest problem of music,” he says. “That’s working backwards from how musicians play to being able to hear it again.”
That meant transforming music from raw audio into a digitized series of perfectly described notes. This was far more than playing sheet music. It was capturing all the touches of a great performance, like how a string is plucked and the length of an almost unnoticed hesitation between musical phrases. Walker says Zenph’s software made it possible to hear a “re-performance” of an old recording, one better than the technology originally used. It’s not a remastering, which tries to fix an existing recording with equalization or noise reduction. Instead, it’s a new recording of a performance that empirically matches the earlier one. The software directs the playing of the music through an actual acoustic piano with minutely accurate timing and sensitivity.
Zenph wound up being purchased by Steinway, which freed Walker to go after his next big thing: an effective treatment for Alzheimer’s disease. It was while pursuing this goal that he came up with a way to revolutionize the practice of medicine.
Walker is now chief technology officer of Muses Labs in Raleigh, North Carolina. The company creates software systems that enable personalized therapy for the treatment of complex diseases.
Alzheimer’s is one such complex disease. It is the result of many interrelated factors and diseases, and those all vary from person to person. Treating Alzheimer’s requires understanding and treating many other diseases first.
“Everyone’s Alzheimer’s and everyone’s cognitive decline and everyone’s mental status is different, and each needs to be unwound in a personalized way,” says Walker. “On the way to Alzheimer’s we have to solve Crohn’s disease and Gaucher’s disease and depression and diabetes, among other things, because they’re all contributors to it.”
To treat a disease, you have to first know which disease it is. This seems obvious, but it’s not. A lot of patients today are treated on the basis of what the doctor thinks the disease is. The fact is that a lot of diagnosis is based on guesswork.
“The best doctors can say, ‘Oh well, you’ve got this and this,’” says Walker. They come to that conclusion based on “their experience and all the connections, and the articles they read last night.” In other words, if you’re exhibiting symptoms X and Y, the doctor knows that those can be signs of disease A, so he or she treats you for it.
“Well, it’s easy if it’s malaria or tuberculosis or something that’s got a one-to-one ratio [of symptoms to disease],” he says. “But most things aren’t like that.”
Those same symptoms could mean you have something else entirely. So, if the first treatment doesn’t work, a patient may have to undergo several tests until one of them comes back positive.
The solution? First rule out all things it can’t be. How do you do that? A genome test costs $200, an extended blood test costs about $750, and an MRI scan can be done for as little as $500. All that information put together can give you a picture of a body’s ecosystem—the moving parts from the microbial level on up. But if you were to have all that done and then bring it to your average doctor, he or she wouldn’t know what to make of it. That’s where Muses Labs’ software comes in.
“We take in all this data and describe what we’re seeing. We prioritize it, and we’ll weight it and say, ‘Look, here’s the status of all these things and to treat them, here’s where to start,’” says Walker.
The result is fewer costly tests, less time spent trying to get the right diagnosis, and the right medicines to treat the right maladies. That last issue alone would have far-reaching effects. According to a study published earlier this year in The Journal of the American Medical Association, a third of the 47 million antibiotic prescriptions written in the U.S. each year are unnecessary. This overuse has led to the emergence of drug-resistant superbugs.
“Doctors will be able to say, ‘Oh, you actually don’t have gluten sensitivity because I’ve looked at these eight genes … and I’ll tell you what they are … and you’re likely not gluten sensitive, even though all these things are present,’” says Walker.
This isn’t just a theory, it’s already happening. The George Washington University Center for Integrative Medicine is using Muses Labs’ protocol to treat people at risk for Alzheimer’s and those already exhibiting early symptoms of the disease.
How well does it work? While Muses Labs is still putting together a large, randomized test, at the recent Alzheimer’s Association International Conference held in Toronto, the company presented data from a pilot study of the protocol.
“Of the people that have moved through the program with us who weren’t too advanced in their cognitive decline, we’ve been able to move all of their neuropsych test scores,” says Walker. “Everything is improved with our treatment program.”
If Walker’s approach can do that with a disease as complex as Alzheimer’s, its impact on far simpler things could be even more profound.
From even a short conversation with Walker, it becomes clear he believes his work at Muses Labs has the potential to dramatically improve the quality of health care—and the lives of many who suffer from complex conditions like Alzheimer’s disease. It is impossible not to notice his energy and enthusiasm when he speaks about his latest venture. He is excited and engaged. This, coming from a man who has already had a remarkable career of innovation.
While only time will tell if the work Walker is doing at Muses Labs will revolutionize medicine, it’s comforting to know that this crazy-smart and passionate gentleman is on the case.
For more information about Dr. Walker and his work, please visit museslabs.com.