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Back To The Baseline? Ex-FDA Commish Califf Joins Verily As Advisor

Xconomy National — 

In addition to a return to his old stomping grounds at Duke University, former FDA commissioner Robert Califf is going to work for Verily Life Sciences, the Silicon Valley R&D health group formerly known as Google Life Sciences. Verily published a blog post Wednesday in Califf’s name describing the vaguest outlines of his new gig.

The post reads in part: “Now, as part of the Verily team, I’m hoping to offer insights that will allow the company to better tailor its technologies to meet the needs of doctors, other providers, health systems and the patients they serve, and to drive evidence-based approaches that will enable continuous learning and improvement.”

Other than “offering insights,” as today’s post states, it’s unclear what Califf will do for Verily. A Verily spokesperson said Califf would be a paid “Advisor”—with a capital A—and will start on June 5.

However, many signs point to Califf working on Verily’s Baseline project, a multiyear study to monitor and collect data from 10,000 participants. Before taking the helm of the FDA in 2015, he was involved in Baseline, which at the time was hoping to establish a recruitment center at Duke. Califf was listed as a “co-principal investigator” of Baseline in its earliest days trying to get off the ground.

After a long pilot phase centered around a Southern California health spa, Verily recently announced the launch of Baseline, with clinics at Duke and Stanford University recruiting healthy people for two days of intensive tests, followed by years of monitoring through a wearable wrist device called the Study Watch.

The Califf news, which broke yesterday, comes as health care practitioners are looking to ever-growing amounts of data to help tailor personalized treatments and perform sophisticated analysis of public health trends. While mistrust between medical and tech people is top of mind, ambitions to marry medical and “big data” technical expertise continue to spread.

The federal government has its own long-term health study about to begin in earnest, although the Obama-era project will have to weather political winds and budget uncertainty under a new administration.

Before his FDA gig, Califf was a cardiologist at Duke, with a focus on new approaches to clinical studies. At the FDA, he was a proponent of the need to explore new trial designs. In particular, Califf drew the spotlight for green-lighting a controversial drug with a bare minimum of clinical data despite the objections of many FDA staffers.

Califf was also instrumental in a different long-term health study at Duke. The Murdock study, named after its benefactor David Murdock of Dole Foods, has collected blood, urine, and health information from more than 12,000 people in North Carolina so far. Califf was its top researcher before joining the FDA. A Verily spokesperson said there are no plans to connect Baseline and Murdock “at this time.”

Califf’s post says that the job Duke has offered him “matches” what he’s doing at Verily: “At Duke, I will work to leverage the actionable data science produced by its deep bench of quantitative talent and clinical and operational experts to improve health and healthcare.”

A major question surrounding Baseline is whether it can recruit participants while withholding some of their personal data. As Stanford radiologist Sam Gambhir, one of Baseline’s top researchers, told Xconomy last month, the only data shared back with participants will be lab-certified, such as blood work and images from scans. Raw day-to-day data from the Study Watch will not be included, GAmbhir said.

Califf wrote this morning that he would also start an adjunct professor position at Stanford in addition to his work at Duke and Verily.