Our Innovator of the Month is shaking up the medical world with his company Sophia Genetics. Starting out from DNA sequencing and the data arising from the process, Jurgi Camblong’s aim is to be able to arrive at the most precise diagnosis possible and, in the long term, determine the most effective treatment.

Jurgi Camblong draws on AI and collective innovation to combat cancer

His voice has a musical lilt to it, he has a sporty appearance and attractive manner. Jurgi Camblong, co-founder and CEO of Sophia Genetics, is a long way from the image of Professor Calculus, the slightly hare-brained boffin from Hergé’s Tintin stories, which one tends to associate with specialists in this field.

Camblong’s basic aim – to create “artificial intelligence that will make medicine much more human” – is reminiscent of the crusade of Guy Vallancien, a member of the French National Academy of medicine and author of ‘La médecine sans médecin’ (Medicine without Doctors), of whom Camblong is an ardent fan. ‟Tomorrow’s doctors will be replaced by machines, so their role will be that of advisor,” predicts Vallancien. And Sophia Genetics, the company specialising in precision medicine that Camblong co-founded, is bringing that prospect ever closer to reality.

Camblong grew up in the Basque region of France. He studied biochemistry at the University of Pau before moving on to study biology at the University of Bordeaux. Chance then took him to Switzerland after he failed to obtain a grant to write his thesis. In Geneva he completed a PhD in what has become his main focus of interest: molecular biology. Back when he was writing his thesis, the idea of becoming an entrepreneur already appealed to him. “Since the time I was writing my thesis, I’ve always wanted to create a startup. I wanted to have an immediate impact on people’s health,” he reveals. Camblong then did a further two years at Oxford University as a post-doctoral Associate Researcher before finally settling in Switzerland, where his girlfriend is from. There he launched his first company, Gene Predictis, but very soon his intuition told him that data analysis was destined to come to the fore as a means of aiding diagnosis and determining the right treatment. Dr Pierre Hutter, who was doing ground-breaking work in molecular genomics, and Dr Lars Steinmetz, Co-Director of the Stanford Genome Technology Center at the University of Stanford, joined Camblong to set up Sophia Genetics.

The basic principle is simple: in 2003, genome research underwent a real revolution. Based on a broad international effort involving a long study process, the first human genome was ‘decoded’ at a total cost of $3 billion. Within thirteen years the same result would be obtainable in a single day for just $1000 dollars. Hospitals rapidly became very interested in the new techniques.

So the dream that tomorrow every human being could have his/her own genome map, and know all about his/her food intolerances, foreseeable illnesses and potential reaction to treatment is now before our eyes. But before we can attain the dream, we still need to collect and analyse all the data. This is precisely what Sophia Genetics is all about.

The company’s artificial intelligence system, entitled Sophia, is a “system that constantly learns from thousands of patients’ genomic profiles in order to improve patient diagnostics and treatment.” And today it is the basis for the first-ever clinical genomics community. Some 180 hospitals are now using Sophia to formulate diagnoses on over two hundred patients a day in thirty countries, for around thirty different illnesses. Today Sophia is widely regarded as the leading AI system for precision medicine.

Those involved are taking an open, collective approach to innovation. “The more we sequence tumours, the better we can understand alterations and mutations, and the more we are able to understand how illnesses originate,” points out Jurgi Camblong, explaining: “We need to succeed in creating collective intelligence – an epidemiology that would enable us to predict that a given cancer in a patient resembles that of 10,000 other patients, of whom 10% have received such and such a course of treatment and survived.”  In the long term, oncologists will be able to target their treatments more precisely, based on the proven effectiveness of treatments for other patients.

Asked about the role of doctors in the future, given the rise of powerful AI systems, Jurgi Camblong takes an optimistic view. “With artificial intelligence, the most technical part will already be taken care of. Freed from worrying about the technology, doctors will then have much more time to look after their patients and will be able to use their expertise and intuition to forge a bond with the patient. This is something artificial intelligence won’t be able to do. So therefore artificial intelligence will help to make medicine much more human!” concludes the Sophia Genetics CEO.

Jurgi Camblong took part in the Hello Tomorrow Summit held in Paris in mid-October. See the Summit reporting


By Lila Meghraoua
Journaliste/Productrice radio