FDA Approval Moves DTC Genetic Testing Forward

DTC genetic testing, Hannes Smarason

23andMe is relaunching its direct-to-consumer genetic tests in the U.S. with the approval of the FDA to provide consumers “carrier status” information on 36 genes that can cause rare diseases. I am optimistic that DTC genetic testing will expand its impact over time, ultimately having a tremendous impact on human health globally.

Today, genomics industry maverick, 23andMe, is relaunching its direct-to-consumer (DTC) genetic testing in the U.S., with the approval of the FDA to inform consumers whether they carry a genetic variant for one of 36 rare diseases that could potentially be passed on to their children. In addition to this carrier status information that now meets FDA standards, reports from the newly launched 23andMe test will include information on wellness, traits, and ancestry.

A big positive step forward

For the genomics industry as a whole, this is a significant step forward as the FDA’s decisions have global influence. Indeed, this is a landmark FDA decision, as it is the first time ever that the FDA has allowed such a broad spectrum of medically relevant genetic information to be provided directly to consumers. Both the FDA and 23andMe deserve credit for working through the challenges that, less than two years ago, resulted in the FDA ordering 23andMe to stop marketing its genetic testing kits in the U.S. That the FDA—one of the world’s most thoughtful medical regulatory agencies—has come so far so fast is indicative of the potential it likely sees in DTC genetic testing improving the health of U.S citizens.

A larger journey ahead for direct-to-consumer genetic testing

Moving forward, there are at least two important directions that—in collaboration with the appropriate regulatory agencies, such as the FDA—I think DTC genetic testing will advance:

• DTC genetic testing will expand its reach globally; and
• DTC genetic testing will likely expand the medical impact of its reported results.

DTC genetic testing will expand its reach globally.

Catalyzed by demand for improved health, DTC genetic testing services will inevitably become accessible to much of the world’s population over the decades to come. To be successful, these services will need to be customized by geography and culture and approved by the appropriate local governmental agencies. While the genome is shared by all humans, it is naïve to think that DTC genetic testing services will be the same across all people living anywhere. It is incumbent on industry participants to align their DTC reports and services to best meet the needs of the specific customers in specific countries and geographies—and to do so in a spirit of cooperation with the appropriate governmental health regulators.

DTC genetic testing will likely expand the medical impact of its reported results.

As noted, today’s FDA approval for 23andMe to be able report on carrier status is a significant step forward, but more health data remains to be gleaned—and reported—from an individual’s genomic data. From 23andMe’s announcement, you can see the foreshadowing of what may ultimately be possible:

About [23andMe’s] Carrier Status Tests
[23andMe’s tests] can be used to determine carrier status in adults from saliva collected using an FDA-cleared collection device (Oragene DX model OGD.500.001), but cannot determine if you have two copies of the genetic variant. Each test is most relevant for people of certain ethnicities. The tests are not intended to diagnose a disease, or tell you anything about your risk for developing a disease in the future. On their own, carrier status tests are not intended to tell you anything about the health of your fetus, or your newborn child’s risk of developing a particular disease later in life.

Clearly, working with regulators such as the FDA, and others, such as thoughtful genetic counselors, there is a future potential for the right service to be able to report on people’s risk for developing specific diseases. Informed, health-conscious consumers are very likely to demand access to this information—and millions of individuals have already paid significant sums out of their own pockets to have their genomes sequenced and analyzed. Indeed, from news reports covering 23andMe, we know that when ordered by the FDA to stop providing health information such as the disease risk, their rate of new customer sign-ups dropped by more than half.

I am very optimistic that DTC genetic testing will expand its impact over time, overcoming skepticism and ultimately having a tremendous impact on human health globally. I am proud that our team at WuXi NextCODE will be a part of making this exciting future happen, and today I am especially proud that WuXi Ventures recently invested in 23andMe, making us active supporters of its current and noteworthy success.


Genomics in Cancer: Continuing to Push the Leading Edge

genomics in cancer - hannes smarason

Genomics is helping to prevent and treat cancer at an accelerating rate, supporting the goal of oncologists to dramatically improve cancer patient outcomes.

The progress in the use of genomics to help prevent and treat cancer continues to grow at a pace that is impressive. Indeed, there is expanded use of genomics to drive patient care and improve outcomes across an ever-expanding number of cancers by a growing number of oncologists.

Genomic Knowledge Can Clearly Drive Better Care

Applying genomics to cancer treatment is a powerful clinical application, as genomics can provide a window into how to best treat a patient’s particular cancer as it:

  1. may help better understand the genetics of the tumor itself, and
  2. can provide insight into how cancerous tumors may grow and spread over time.

With a genomic-based approach to cancer care, oncologists can more personally tailor anti-cancer treatments to an individual tumor’s mutations, thus molecularly targeting the specific cancer’s Achilles heel. Already, there are well-documented successes of molecularly targeted anti-cancer agents, such as cancer drugs that target certain genes—HER2, EFGR, ALK, and others.

In 2015, the pace of adoption of genomics in clinical oncology has advanced significantly. Recent evidence of the accelerating use of genomics to help fight cancer includes:

  • Evolving from ‘why’ to ‘how’ to use genomics at leading cancer centers. At the top cancer care facilities, genomics has become part of the programmatic approach to provide certain cancer patients with optimal care—care that is fundamentally designed to lead to the best outcomes. The question for leading medical centers globally has evolved over the last few years from “do we need genomics?” to “for which cancer types and at what stages of cancer treatment and diagnosis can we best use genomic sequencing and analysis?”—an evolution from “why?” to “how?” at a very fundamental level. The accelerating use and deployment of genomics by leading medical facilities validates that they are deriving significant value from genomics, and that value is resulting ultimately in meaningfully advancing better care for cancer patients.
  • Expanding potential applications of genomics within different types of cancers, broadening the types of cancers and tumors that can potentially benefit from genomics. Researchers and clinicians continue to publish a wealth of information validating the potential of genomics to improve outcomes in certain types of cancer patients. In 2015 alone, highlights of these advancements include certain prostate cancers, brain cancers, rare types of pediatric kidney cancers, and even potential targets in certain non-small cell lung cancers.
  • Broadening acceptance in cancer prevention. Driven in part by the education of oncologists and physicians generally and in part by the empowerment of knowledgeable patients, people are seeking and benefiting from genetic tests that reveal their personal risk for certain tumors (such as BRCA for breast or ovarian cancers). The idea of using genomic analysis to predict an individual’s cancer risk by comparing their genome with databases of confirmed genetic mutations linked to disease is—for certain individuals with specific family histories and genetics—driving appropriate medical decisions for patients who may be at high risk for certain cancers.
  • Powering clinical trials with genomics. The use of genomics in cancer clinical trials – whether for inclusion in data-gathering or even screening of patients—has gone from rare to commonplace over recent years, and is improving knowledge around the safety and efficacy of drugs in cancer and beyond. Two large-scale cancer trials have been initiated in 2015 with the bold goal of substantially advancing the understanding and use of genomics in cancer care. The anti-cancer treatments being tested in both trials were selected for their activity on a specific molecular target, independent of tumor location and histology. The two trials are actively enrolling and are (1) an American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO)-sponsored study, called TAPUR (Targeted Agent and Profiling Utilization Registry) and National Cancer Institute (NCI) and is called NCI-MATCH (Molecular Analysis for Therapy Choice). These trials and any subsequent follow-on trials will doubtless provide insightful information to drive the growing use of genomics in improving cancer care.

In summary, genomics is helping to prevent and treat cancer at an accelerating rate, supporting the goal of oncologists to dramatically improve cancer patient outcomes. There are at least four frontiers where we can see substantial progress in the use of genomics in cancer care, including expanded use in leading medical centers, increased potential applications within cancer, widespread acceptance in cancer prevention, and an increase in the use of genomics within clinical trials. I am personally committed to continue to drive and accelerate this genomic revolution to continue to bring true progress in improving cancer care to patients in need globally.

2015: An Inflection Point for Genomics Adoption Around the Globe

2015 genomics hannes smarason

2015 is shaping up to be a significant year in the advancement and adoption of genome sequencing and personalized medicine around the globe.

The year 2015 is shaping up to be an inflection point in the advancement and adoption of genome sequencing and personalized medicine.  While private initiatives are often the centerpiece of media coverage, leading governments clearly have advanced a number of important initiatives this year.  Indeed, many governments around the globe are actively promoting widespread utilization of genomics, supporting academic research, establishing industry guidelines, and raising public awareness.

Governments Serving as Catalysts for Genomics Progress

The efforts of officials worldwide to engage with and support the private sector’s tremendous potential have helped to make 2015 a significant year for expanding the use of genomics in clinical care.  A few highlights of 2015 include:

— In the U.S., President Obama made precision health one of the centerpieces of his State of the Union address in January. Obama’s administration kicked this effort off by requesting a $215M investment in a Precision Medicine Initiative with the following key attributes:

  • The cornerstone of Obama’s proposal is the plan to collect and analyze genomic data from a million or more volunteers;
  • The initiative further supports genomics through expanded research into the genetic mutations that drive cancer;
  • Additional funding is earmarked to maintain databases and develop industry standards.

— Germany and the U.K. expanded eligibility for government-funded genetic testing for breast cancer patients.

— Israel announced its intent to establish a government-sponsored genetic database.

— Through the National Institutes of Health and the National Cancer Institute, the U.S. federal government proposed dozens of new funding opportunities to support research in genetic sequencing and analysis.

— Japan launched an Initiative on Rare and Undiagnosed Diseases to provide genomic analysis and expert consultation for up to 1,000 individuals with childhood onset of undiagnosed conditions.

— Through Genomics England (which I described in further detail here), the U.K. Department of Health tapped WuXi NextCODE and others to begin interpretation in its groundbreaking 100,000 Genomes Project.

In news today, the trend toward globalization of genomics continues, as private sector leaders aligned to meet the needs of the forward-looking government health initiatives of Qatar:

— WuXi NextCODE and the Sidra Medical and Research Center partner to power population genomics and precision medicine in Qatar. Our partnership will:

  • Facilitate clinical diagnostics;
  •  Accelerate research; and
  • Support the Qatar Genome Project.

As I have discussed in an earlier post, large-scale population studies are an essential step in harnessing the power of genomics to improve health worldwide.  Since WuXi NextCODE’s foundational heritage as part of deCODE Genetics’ landmark analysis of Icelanders, we have always developed the tools to help translate sequence data into precision medicine on a large scale.  In our work with Genomics England, our collaboration with Fudan Children’s Hospital to diagnose rare diseases in China, and now our partnership with Sidra, the team at WuXi NextCODE is leading the effort to realize the potential of genomics on a truly global scale. The increasing interest in supporting those efforts shown by leading governments across the globe is helping to drive the successful use and application of genomics worldwide.

Genomics for Rare Diseases: Going Global and Shifting the Care Paradigm

The use of genomics in rare disease diagnosis and treatment is going global

The benefits of genomics in rare diseases are increasingly making a difference to patients, their families, and their physicians, and they are being scaled globally.

The trend of accelerating the use of genomics in rare disease diagnosis and treatment is going global, driven by the important goal of reaching all people around the world, no matter where they live.

Active programs have now been deployed and exist in many populous countries around the world.

For instance, WuXi NextCODE has established active collaborative efforts in three continents, most recently adding Fudan Children’s Hospital as a partner in its efforts to lead whole genome diagnostics for rare diseases in China.

Over the coming weeks, I expect WuXi NextCODE to continue have news of its dedicated efforts to spread the application of genomics for rare diseases to all geographies.

Diagnosing Rare Diseases: Genomics Shifts the Paradigm

Rare diseases are an area of significant advancement for genomics, as the opportunity for improved diagnosis and treatment through the use of genomics is truly remarkable.

According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), there are over 7,000 rare diseases affecting between 25 and 30 million Americans, which is nearly 1 in 10 people, making the overall prevalence of rare diseases significant. Since NIH believes that approximately 80 percent of rare diseases have genetic origins, the potential for genomic sequencing, interpretation, and analysis to offer a solution here is truly game-changing.

Every day there are new cases of children with “unknown” diseases, many of which are likely related to a hereditary genetic disorder. Sadly, these children and their families often spend years undergoing testing and experimental treatments for a wide range of diseases in an attempt to properly diagnose and treat them; usually, this so-called “diagnostic odyssey” is accompanied by a very high financial and emotional burden.

Genomics offers the potential to deliver a correct and precise diagnosis for rare diseases that have identifiable genetic causes. Indeed, case studies are rapidly accumulating that show that, by offering genomic sequencing and analysis services to patients with a suspected rare genetic disease, mutations that might be causing the disease may be identified, and thus correct treatment can be employed much earlier to eliminate the burden of a long-term diagnostic and treatment odyssey.  A recent article in Bloomberg BusinessWeek highlighted medical histories of two patients who recently received a diagnosis informed by genomics. In both these representative examples, genomic analyses provided an end to the burden, cost, and stress of their multidecade-long diagnostic odyssey:

  • Jackie Smith, 35, spent the 32 years from age 3 unable to receive a correct diagnosis that could account for her weak limbs and turned-in ankles, despite seeing many doctors on numerous occasions. Indeed, Jackie’s parents were told to “take the 3-year-old girl home and enjoy her while they could” …”[her disease] would probably kill her before she was old enough to drive.”  This past February, using genomic interpretation and analyses from Wuxi NextCODE, Claritas Genomics definitively identified her condition as centronuclear myopathy in less than three weeks.
  • Dustin Bennett, 24, would tremble and violently jerk for hours or days at a time and had been developmentally delayed since childhood. After dozens of doctor visits and incorrect diagnoses—seizures, muscle disorders, mental health problems—a Mayo Clinic genomic-based analysis showed he has episodic ataxia type I, a neurological disease characterized by hours-long attacks with no clear trigger. Dustin, a 24-year-old who functions at a first-grade level, is now on the second round of a medication doctors say should help reduce the frequency and severity of his episodes.

The benefits of genomics in rare diseases – to individuals, their families, and their physicians – are increasingly making a difference to patients.  These benefits are being seen in case after case – and they are being scaled globally, as leading medical centers in many countries around the world are using genomics to support their efforts in diagnosing and treating rare diseases.  I believe passionately in the game-changing potential of genomics to help rare disease patients and I am dedicated to advancing world-leading genomics globally to uncover new solutions for patients.