About Hannes Smarason

Hannes Smarason is CEO of NextCODE Health, a genomics leader. He is the former CEO of the FL Group (formerly Icelandair) and Chief Business Officer of deCODE Genetics, an Iceland-based genomics company.

Speeding Diagnosis of Rare Diseases

WuXi NextCODE Claritas

Claritas Genomics combines physician experience with next-generation sequencing and WuXi NextCODE’s analytics to accelerate rare disease diagnosis.

It’s one of the most heartbreaking and frustrating things for parents and pediatricians. When a child presents with a constellation of symptoms that doesn’t point to a known disease, what do you do?

Typically, these kids undergo a battery of tests, some of which will eventually be for single genes suspected to play a role in their health problems. But what if those tests come up negative? That leaves the families and doctors wringing their hands as they wonder what to do next.

That was the case with a patient at Boston Children’s Hospital (BCH). He was a boy who, at six months, wasn’t sitting up, smiling, or doing most of the things babies his age typically do. Instead, he seemed “rigid” to his mom, and then he developed a severe respiratory virus and was hospitalized. He also had repeated seizures and eventually needed a tracheotomy—a tube placed through an incision in his throat to help him breath.

Usually, such kids then begin going through what is known as a “diagnostic odyssey”—a long and arduous journey from doctor to doctor and lab to lab.

BCH doctors are trying a new approach. In 2013, the hospital spun out Claritas Genomics, a specialized genetics diagnostics business that combines the experience of the hospital’s physicians with the power of next-generation sequencing and WuXi NextCODE’s advanced analytics. Timothy Yu, a neurologist and researcher at BCH, helped found Claritas to provide a more holistic approach to rare disease.

WuXi NextCODE’s advanced analytics play a key role in improving the speed and efficiency of such diagnostics. Reading the genome isn’t the major challenge anymore—now the issue is finding the relevant mutations in those three billion base pairs.

The data from a single genome can comprise more than 100 gigabytes, which is enough to fill the hard drive on a good laptop computer. Even the exome, which comprises the parts of the genome that encode proteins, can be 15 gigabytes. To diagnose a rare disease, doctors need to find sequence variations and then scour the research to find out what those actually do. That used to take months to years, and many of the variants were simply classified as being of “unknown significance,” without any further information or the ability to check again as the field of knowledge grew.

WuXi NextCODE’s system has begun to make this a click-and-search task. Our knowledgebase can mine all publicly available global reference datasets simultaneously and in real time to show all there is to know about any given variant and its likely biological impact. By keeping the data in a WuXi NextCODE research database, such as the one BCH is growing every day, our system can also quickly rerun the analysis and provide new information as soon as it becomes known.

Claritas is continually expanding the range of its services. Most recently, the group received conditional approval from the New York Department of Health for three new “region of interest assays” as well as one for mitochondrial DNA. That brings the number of Claritas’s approved tests in that state up to six and means more patients in New York will benefit from this new technology.

Children at BCH with ambiguous diagnoses now regularly undergo a whole exome scan early in their clinical journey. The data is then triaged. It is examined first for the most obvious mutations and then more data is progressively analyzed as necessary. With the consent of parents and security measures for privacy, that data can also become part of research datasets at BCH and other major hospitals around the world, so that the growing data pool can benefit that child and others.

This combination of expertise and technology helped Claritas Genomics find an answer for that baby boy and his family mentioned earlier. Heather Olson, the boy’s treating neurologist, had the boy’s exome scanned through Claritas Genomics, and 130 genetic variations were identified that could have caused one or more of the symptoms. WuXi NextCODE’s system helped narrow that down to only six variants that could have possibly been passed on by the boy’s parents. Olson and Yu finally focused on one, a mutation of the BRAT1 gene, which served as a diagnosis. A paper published by Yu, Olson, and colleagues, which describes this mutation and children affected by it, should help other physicians make this diagnosis more quickly in the future.

Yu presented more on Claritas’s novel platform recently at Boston’s Bio-IT World meeting. He explained how the platform helps doctors to much more quickly and accurately diagnose kids with diseases not previously described.

“Thanks to the speed of the platform, we can get a whole clinical exome completed in as little as two weeks,” he said.

The growing database of genetic variants and their effects also means more patients will get an actual diagnosis, rather than walking away still wondering what could be going on.

The ability to diagnose more cases is a start to unravelling the causes of the estimated 7,000 different rare diseases estimated to exist. And it’s a necessary first step towards developing new therapies for those conditions, too.

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Bringing Artificial Intelligence to Cardiovascular Medicine and Cancer: Genomics in Action

WuXi NextCODE Nature

A Yale research team, with contributions from WuXi NextCODE’s artificial intelligence (AI) and sequencing teams, has discovered a novel mechanism regulating how blood vessels grow.

Artificial Intelligence (AI) can already catch a criminal and identify the right patients for certain types of surgery. But those challenges involve relatively few parameters compared to number of parameters or features involved in linking the 3 billion bases in the human genome with other ‘omics data and all the complexity of human biology. For that very reason, the promise of AI in genomics is as necessary as it is enticing, and WuXi NextCODE is committed to pushing the frontier of this emerging field.

This week, I am encouraged by results from a study published in the latest edition of Nature, which describes how a well-known growth factor may play a previously unknown role in some important diseases. That report, led by Yale University scientist Michael Simons, investigates blood vessel growth regulation—a crucial process in some very common conditions, including cardiovascular disease and cancer. Our Shanghai team provided RNA sequencing for this study. Our Cambridge AI team applied some of the most advanced statistic in their toolset to take the data analysis to the next level.

Simons’ team studied knock out mice, whose fibroblast growth factor (FGF) receptor genes were turned off. The scientists were able to prove, for the first time, that FGFs have a key role in blood vessel growth, uncovering some metabolic processes that were “a complete surprise,” according to scientists on the team. Further, they mapped out pathways that could help provide new drug leads.

It’s inspiring to see scientists from around the world using top-notch technology to collaborate on pivotal research questions. This study involved scientists in six different countries.

This FGF study also comes on the heels of our recent announcement about how our deepCODE approach classified 27 different tumor types with greater than 95% accuracy when applied across approximately 9,000 human tumors from The Cancer Genome Atlas (TCGA) collection. [LINK: https://www.wuxinextcode.com/highlights/posters-at-aacr/#/brief–using-ai]

With the rapid rate of progress, it’s not surprising that AI is finding success in genomics. Today’s informatics capabilities allow for assimilating larger and larger datasets with AI applications, and the field is evolving at a rapid pace. Google alone published more than 200 papers on AI in 2016. Like us, they use a deep learning approach.

From facial recognition to genomic solutions
Each AI problem has a different scale. In facial recognition, AI applications analyze relatively few features in the human face (about two dozen). Digital scans of the human eye that use AI techniques are able to segment patients before eye surgeries, and this entails algorithms that consider hundreds of features.

Genomics, of course, involves looking at any number of feature sets among billions of possibilities. It’s an immense challenge, but I think it’s perfectly suited to AI. And with deep-learning tools, we can fish out many more insights than with traditional analyses.

Our goal is to see how AI can help researchers achieve better results in identifying and evaluating new medicines, pinpointing risk factors and disease drivers, finding new combination therapies that work better than single drugs, and more. Our deepCODE tools comprise a novel, multinomial statistical-learning method and deep learning classification strategy. It’s an advanced approach to AI.

This week’s Nature paper is another encouraging sign.

Many of the stickiest problems in medicine are longstanding. The role of FGFs in blood vessel development was poorly understood until now. This group’s findings may help open new avenues of research.

Our team is always seeking to tackle problems with the latest approaches and technologies. Now, in the age of big data, it makes sense to start letting computers do more and more of the work, even some of the actual thinking. Certainly, we pick the questions and frame them. But then, let’s load the data and let the machines help us find the answers. If we can polish this process, and apply it to a growing number of problems, new answers and insights are sure to come.

A Perfect Pairing? AI and Precision Medicine

AI-and-precision-medicineLet’s start with one of the fastest-growing fields in science today: artificial intelligence (AI). Now, let’s apply another technology that has profound potential for improving patient care:  precision medicine. Some of us think the integration of these two arenas could be a “sweet spot” that leads to some of the decade’s biggest advances in healthcare.

As someone who has worked in genomics for two decades, I am a believer in the combined power of AI and precision medicine. And in my current work, I have the pleasure of pioneering both technologies.

Cancer has been one of the early beachheads for precision medicine, Now, AI is also following that path, with the aim of advancing individualized treatment.

For example, just today, WuXi NextCODE presented preliminary data from analyses using our novel AI technology at the American Association of Cancer Research annual meeting in Washington D.C. We tested the accuracy of our new deepCODE deep learning tools to diagnose subtypes of tumors. Our results suggest these tools do a better job than traditional approaches for classifying tumors and helping determine which patients will respond to which drugs.  Our new AI technology can incorporate all types of omic data, and can also help with drug discovery and finding the best uses for drugs.

How can AI technologies achieve better results in identifying precision treatments in cancer and other diseases?  In the case of our new deepCODE tools, it is in part thanks to a novel, multinomial statistical-learning method and deep learning classification strategy. This approach is designed to support dramatic improvements in drug discovery and development, as well as medical care. But we need to prove the technology’s potential by testing it on real problems in genomic medicine. So, that’s what we are doing.

The initial results are promising. Our deepCODE tools were validated on six patient-derived tumor xenografts from mouse models, and then tested against approximately 9,000 human tumors from a collection of 27 types in The National Cancer Institute’s Cancer Genome Atlas (TCGA) collection. (https://cancergenome.nih.gov/)  We achieved 95% accuracy overall in this test. In analyses of human breast and lung cancer subtypes, deepCODE was accurate in 96% and 99% of cases, respectively. That study included DNA- and RNA-seq data.

These findings are very encouraging.  Breast and lung cancer are both very common malignancies that are increasingly being “divided” into subtypes that have significantly different outcomes and need different treatment regimens. These preliminary data are by no means definitive, but they suggest that AI could bring new certainty to cancer diagnosis.

But why is it even so important to get a fast, accurate molecular diagnosis of a tumor?

Well, here’s the challenge: Today patients who have suspected cancers are typically biopsied.  A snip of the tumor is examined under a microscope and then may be tested for common biological receptors. It can take a while for that to occur. Next, the patient undergoes treatment, and whatever drugs they receive could actually change the tumor’s biology: After that, the drugs initially prescribed might not be the best option anymore.

So how can we know when to switch treatments, and what to switch to?

In the ideal world, anyone diagnosed with cancer would be followed up with an extensive molecular biopsy. In other words, once the initial diagnosis is made, the patient would undergo follow-up tests that involve relatively painless blood draws. From these blood samples (liquid biopsies), the tumor’s DNA would be read, and that would determine how to best monitor and prescribe for that particular patient going forward.

It is an exciting time to be working on integrating AI technology with the primary tools for improving precision medicine in cancer and other diseases.  We’re just at the start of this journey, and we’ll likely find many other ways that AI technology can impact patient healthcare.

Join us here as we follow this intriguing program’s progress.

Personal Genomics Can Drive Preventive Medicine and Wellness

WuXi NextCODE HealthCODE

The next wave of genomics impact in health care is preventive medicine and wellness.

Genetic information for individual patients has already successfully infiltrated important areas of clinical practice, notably the diagnosis and treatment of cancer and rare diseases.

Can we now move beyond genomic tests for patients with diseases and begin to use genetic screening of healthy populations to guide preventive medicine and general wellness?  The answer is clearly “yes.”

Today, WuXi NextCODE announced a positive step forward with results from our HealthCODE wellness scan to show the value of genomics in preventive medicine.

Remarkable progress has been made—and continues to evolve—in using genomics as a fundamental technology to guide the treatment of diseases. Many types of cancer patients now routinely have their genetic information tested to inform a personalized medicine approach to their cancer treatment. Similarly, patients with idiopathic and rare diseases increasingly receive genomic testing to identify the pathogenic mutations that may be driving their disease.

Now, genomic information is evolving into the realm of health and wellness. Genomics can help with preventive medicine, serving as a valuable tool for informing people and their doctors about genetic risk factors hiding in DNA, so that individual health plans can be developed. In a preventive medicine and wellness context, genomic information can give people the opportunity to take control of their health by making lifestyle changes and charting a personally tailored healthcare path.

Medical experts, government organizations, and genomics leaders around the world are pushing the frontier of genomics in health and wellness. In January 2017, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) held a special workshop to discuss the role of public health in using genetic screening of healthy individuals. The CDC states that it is becoming clearer as science progresses that there are more opportunities for using genetic screening for preventing common diseases across the lifespan.

Today, WuXi NextCODE announced our first pilot analysis of results from a group of 190 healthy individuals using our HealthCODE consumer whole-genome wellness scan. The scan uses proprietary risk modeling to gauge each individual’s inherited risk of 28 common complex diseases, like hypertension, type 2 diabetes and heart attack. On average, these participants from China were at more than 1.5-times average risk of four common diseases.

A clinical-grade scan such as HealthCODE makes it possible to target those individuals at highest inherited risk of certain diseases, so that they and their doctors can act on this information with lifestyle changes, monitoring, and even medicines they should consider to counteract those risks and increase their chances of staying healthy.

Moreover, the results presented today are important as a reflection and component of the power of having a global platform for genomic data. The same leading technology that is being deployed for Chinese consumers interested in using their genome to protect their health is also being used and can be deployed around the world. The key is the ability to model risk accurately for different populations and to use the same platform for interpreting the data and delivering actionable results to individuals while, at the same time, enabling them to participate in research if they wish to do so.

With the rapid progress in genomics, there is a growing sense that genomic advances are leading to new models of health care centered on disease prevention as well as treatments that are tailored to the individual. At the core, the aim of all of us is to reinforce the ability of health care to prevent illness and inform how we can live healthier. The impact can be across a range of outcomes, from better individual health, improved quality of life, and reduced costs to the healthcare system.

Diversity in Genomic Data

genomic diversity

Incorporating information from diverse populations into reference genomic databases is key to our mission at WuXi NextCODE.

Diversity is undeniably essential to genomics. To maximize the power of our field to revolutionize healthcare and improve patient outcomes, we must continually expand our understanding of the genetic factors that influence disease. Importantly, we must recognize that those factors are not uniform across all populations. At WuXi NextCODE, we believe that incorporating information from diverse populations into reference genomic databases is key to our mission.

As a recent article in Nature clearly describes, we have made great strides in expanding the diversity of genome-wide association studies (GWAS). Between 2009 and 2016, we have seen tremendous growth both in the number of studies (from 373 to 2,511) and in the number of individual samples (from approximately 1.7 million to almost 35 million). During that same period, however, the percentage of non-European samples included in GWAS grew from just 4% to roughly 20%.

The progress that has been made in the diversity of genomic data is mostly derived from the inclusion of studies that focus on Asian populations, such as the initiatives WuXi NextCODE has launched in China. Expanded diversity in GWAS will continue as more and more population-wide studies gain traction in non-European countries. Announced studies that will contribute to diversity in genomics include H3Africa (Human Heredity & Health in Africa), the Egyptian Human Genome Sequencing Project, and the Saudi Human Genome Program. And WuXi NextCODE is proud to have partnered with Sidra Medical and Research Center to develop the Qatar Genome Programme.

In addition to these global initiatives, we will gain a better understanding of genetic diversity through targeted studies in Europe and the United States. Specifically, we will benefit from research that focuses on underrepresented populations, such as the Hispanic Community Health Study/Study of Latinos and the Strong Heart Study of American Indians. Further, we will benefit as well from continuing investigation of diversity within European populations, including the work of WuXi NextCODE allies Genomics England and Genomics Medicine Ireland.

In all of these efforts, we seek to identify actionable associations not only between genetic variants and diseases, but also between genetic variations and drug responses. Thus, as diversity expands, so will important information about disease biology. Key questions will be answered: Which associations uncovered in studies built on GWAS for European populations will be replicated, and what new associations will be discovered?

At WuXi NextCODE, we appreciate the importance of gathering and analyzing data from diverse populations.  We supply research and analytical tools to ensure that the benefits of research extend to diverse populations.  Above all, we are committed to pursuing research and discovery goals around the world, leveraging our global footprint and global vision to maximize opportunities to discover meaningful associations that lead to improved treatment and better patient outcomes.

Genomics: Forging Patient-Centric Communities

patient-centric-communities-hannes-smarason

Genomics has become a foundation for virtual patient-centric communities involving patients, caregivers, clinicians, and researchers worldwide.

In recent years, genomics has become a foundation for virtual patient-centric communities – communities built on the Internet and through social media that:

  • Connect people touched by a disease or disorder; or
  • Reach out to broad populations affected by rare diseases, many of whom are undiagnosed.

These patient-centric communities are dedicated to sharing information and providing support in order to break down the barriers of isolation and uncertainty that can compromise care and adversely affect quality of life for patients and their families.  As we learn more about the genetic variations that contribute to diverse conditions, virtual communities that are fueled by genomics contribute an ever-expanding resource.

Virtual communities have greatly affected patients and caregivers worldwide, and the relationships forged through genomics are essential to clinicians and researchers as well.  Genomics not only serves to link patients to each other but also to connect those patients to research initiatives that use genetic sequencing to diagnose conditions and guide treatment, thus improving patient outcomes today while influencing research for better therapies tomorrow.

RareConnect, for example, is an online platform that connects patients, caregivers, clinicians, and researchers in more than eighty disease-specific communities.  Another leader in this arena is PatientsLikeMe, which has activities that encompass more than 400,000 members with over 2,500 conditions.  Many diseases and conditions are identified by genetic abnormalities or characteristics.  Participants in RareConnect, PatientsLikeMe, and similar sites are drawn in part to the ways in which genomics could contribute to an accurate diagnosis, a novel treatment, and ultimately a cure.

The use of genomics to build communities has been especially important for rare diseases.  For patients and caregivers affected by the rarest of rare diseases – the disorders so rare that only a handful of known cases exist worldwide – the transformative role of genomics is that much more powerful.

An excellent article in The Atlantic tells the story of one young woman whose experience illustrates this phenomenon.  A genomic study identified the genetic mutation that underlies Lilly Grossman’s movement disorder.  The information provided by genomics has enabled the formation of a virtual community.

Lilly’s case has acted as a magnet for others with the same mutation. Families with the same problem read about Lilly’s case and contacted the Grossmans. Doctors and geneticists looked at their own patients and saw a new explanation behind puzzling symptoms. Before, there were isolated pockets of people around the world, dealing with their own problems, alone for all they knew. Now, there’s a community.

The connections forged through genomics are essential to patients, often children, and their caregivers, often families.  Genomics can provide the vital link, the piece of information that identifies individuals with similar experiences – the community of people who understand.  Patient-centric communities are one way in which the increasing availability of cost-effective genetic sequencing is transforming patient experiences, shortening diagnostic odysseys, and improving clinical care.

Many such communities are also critical for advocacy and fundraising.  Parent Project Muscular Dystrophy (PPMD), for instance, has worked effectively to promote Duchenne muscular dystrophy research and speed the discovery of potential treatments. PPMD has demonstrated how parents and caregivers can effect meaningful change, raising both awareness and financial resources – and even being a leading voice in support of FDA approval of therapeutics.

The intersection of genomics and social media increasingly drives progress, too. The Charlotte & Gwyneth Gray Foundation, for example, has raised an estimated $3.5 million to support CLN6-Batten disease research – through a crowdfunding initiative launched less than a year ago.

And coalitions of patient-centric communities can achieve significant advances through the power of numbers. Thus Genetic Alliance, a network of more than 10,000 organizations, was a key player in passage of the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act and in development of the National Patient-Centered Clinical Research Network.

Initiatives run the gamut from efforts to identify a handful of individuals with rare diseases to projects that aim to enroll thousands of participants.  Earlier this month, the University of Washington launched MyGene2, a site where families with rare conditions can publicly post their stories, establishing connections not only with those who share similar stories but also with clinicians and researchers.  At the other end of the spectrum, 23andMe has partnered with a number of Parkinson’s community groups on a project to gather genetic data from more than 11,000 individuals.

And, in the last year, the Simons Foundation Autism Research Initiative (SFARI) launched SPARK, a project to collect genomic information from 50,000 people with autism and their families.  At WuXi NextCODE we are delighted to participate in this endeavor by providing direct online access to the data.

Genomics has played a critical role in the evolution of patient-centric communities.  Groups that have developed resources and advice for patients and families are increasingly collaborating with clinicians and researchers.  Through voluntary contributions of personal knowledge – and genomic data – participants in patient communities are expanding the impact of genomics on medicine.  The growing power of virtual communities has facilitated numerous initiatives to improve patient outcomes through improved diagnosis, optimized standards of care, and new directions for promising research.

From rare diseases to disorders that affect millions, all stakeholders increasingly use genomics to translate individual experiences and expertise into meaningful improvements in the lives of patients and their caregivers.  Genomics sits at the powerful nexus between evidenced-based medicine and the empowered patient.  At WuXi NextCODE we are proud to advance the role of genomics not only in patient care but also in the evolution of strong, effective patient-centric communities.

Marking Progress in Genomics: Reflections and Prospects

Progress in Genomics WuXi NextCODEAs leaders of our field gather in Vancouver for the annual American Society of Human Genetics Meeting (ASHG 2016), it is an excellent time to take stock of the past and clarify our perspectives for the future. For the field of genomics, this is an opportunity both to reflect on our accomplishments over the last few years and to consider what we can achieve in the years ahead.

Indeed, our accomplishments have been numerous and our goals are ambitious, yet achievable. Here, I would like to summarize five significant ways in which our work in genomics has been revolutionizing medicine and improving patient outcomes.  In addition, I would like to share my thoughts about five areas in which I believe our field can drive meaningful change over the next few years.

What We Have Achieved
1. Improvements in Sequencing Technology and Analytical Tools
The ever-increasing volume of genomic data is testimony to the dramatic increases in sequencing speed and efficiency over recent years.  At the same time, novel methods of analysis, like the powerful genomics platform employed here at WuXi NextCODE, have considerably advanced our understanding of genetic variations and their clinical significance.

2. Transformations in Cancer Treatment
As I have discussed here, the expanding use of genomic data to guide treatment decisions in oncology is transforming the way clinicians approach cancer treatment.  In addition, our growing understanding of genetic predispositions for certain cancers is helping high-risk individuals make informed choices about preventive care.

3. Progress in Rare Diseases
Genomic data has brought new hope to families struggling with rare diseases by shortening diagnostic odysseys, guiding treatment, and building communities.  I provide examples of the game-changing power of genomics in the diagnosis of rare diseases here.

4. Empowerment of Patients and Consumers
Patients and consumers are increasingly informed about the innovative and meaningful ways in which genomic data can guide healthcare decisions.  The successes in our field are empowering individuals to pursue personalized medicine and generating interest in direct-to-consumer testing.  I offer my thoughts about DTC genetic testing here.

5. Innovations in Cloud-Based Analysis
The vast and ever-growing quantity of genomic data and related information necessitates new approaches to storage and analysis.  As I have previously discussed, cloud-based computing is essential to continued success in genomics.  WuXi NextCODE’s Exchange is at the forefront of the accelerated research made possible by real-time collaboration and analysis in the cloud.

What We Can Achieve in the Years Ahead

1. Effective Communication and Collaboration
Realizing the full potential of big data and cloud-based computing will require new efforts to dismantle “data silos.”  I am encouraged by recent initiatives to facilitate collaboration in cancer research, and – as I have recently discussed – call upon researchers and clinicians throughout the field of genomics to improve communication among all stakeholders.

2. Policies for Research with Patient Data
Our field derives its greatest power from careful analysis of genomic data, and access to data is critical to effecting meaningful change in healthcare.  In order to gather this game-changing data – from patients, from consumers, and from population-wide studies – we need to develop and embrace policies that lead to consider the ‘biorights’ of patients.  Individuals who wish to contribute information for research should have the opportunity to do so, and all parties should clearly communicate the purposes and extent of data-sharing.

3. Integration for Clinical Trials
I perceive significant movement toward the development of clinical trials that test the efficacy of treatments tailored to specific genetic anomalies – and use genetic information to screen participants.  This is an area in which genomics will dramatically accelerate the development of personalized therapies that will surely improve patient outcomes.

4. Actionable Information from Population-Wide Genomic Studies
I believe that in the near future we will reap significant rewards from projects that gather population-wide genomic information.  Analysis of the data we are collecting around the world, which I describe here, is an essential step to reshaping healthcare practices worldwide.

5. Globalization of Genomic Products: ‘Think Globally, Act Locally’
The power of genomic information is now known throughout the globe, and can be applied in a multitude of positive ways.  With such widespread potential, individual countries and cultures will choose to advance and roll-out genomics in their own distinct ways for the benefit of their citizens.  Companies that develop genomic products will need to adapt and design their products for use in specific markets.  At WuXi NextCODE, the first focus of our product portfolio for individual patients and families is in China, where we are delivering three offerings: population-optimized diagnostics, carrier screening, and whole-genomic wellness scans.

Together these initiatives build upon our recent accomplishments and further the creation of data and analysis necessary for meaningful change in healthcare.

The genomic revolution in medicine that we envisage will be achieved through applied use of research and development that is:

  • Fueled by big data, including data provided by informed consumers and patients and data derived from population-wide studies;
  • Supported by clinical trials crafted to assess the safety and efficacy of treatments tailored to individual characteristics; and
  • Enabled by collaborative work and effective communication.

At WuXi NextCODE, we are energized by the prospects for genomics in the years to come. We are proud to be at the cutting edge, providing the tools and resources that researchers and clinicians need to harness the transformative power of genomic data. And—importantly—we are confident that our field will continue to drive meaningful changes in healthcare that improve patient outcomes.

Genomic Information and the Importance of Communication

Communicating clinically useful results both to doctors and patients will drive success

genomics-communications-hannes-smarasonAround the world, researchers and clinicians are taking on the challenge of integrating genomic analysis into medical practice. Physicians and patients are increasingly aware of the potential utility of genomic data. As genomics continues to become a more powerful tool in healthcare, there is a clear and compelling need for a commitment to excellence in communication.

At WuXi NextCODE, we are proud to provide sequencing and analysis resources that help doctors:

  • Shorten diagnostic odysseys, as I have discussed here; and
  • Improve treatment choices, as I have discussed here.

Maximizing the opportunities afforded by the ‘big data’ of genomics necessitates collaboration and communication, which I discuss in more detail here. As part of our genomics business, we are dedicated to the highest standards of communication – indeed, we view effective communication as central to how our technologies will improve health in both the near and the long term.

The task of harnessing the vast and expanding quantity of genomic data to improve clinical care requires interpretation and discovery powered to translate the data into clinically useful information. Leveraging that information to improve patient outcomes also requires clear and accurate communication:

  • Between researchers and clinicians;
  • Between specialists in different medical fields;

And, increasingly,

  • Between doctors and patients.

As the recent CLARITY Undiagnosed competition highlighted, applying genomic data to medical practice involves interpreting the sequenced genomes and identifying molecular diagnoses – and a third step: communicating clinically useful results both to doctors and to patients.

The CLARITY challenge winners, including WuXi NextCODE, were explicitly recognized for the quality and clinical utility of their reports.

Studies and surveys have shown that many people favor greater access to genetic information. Individuals want analysis of their genomes in order to:

  • Reveal their unique risk factors for inherited diseases;
  • Pinpoint a diagnosis if they are ill; and
  • Guide their decisions if they are seeking treatment.

Genomics is helping to inform patients in all these ways.

In addition, genomics demonstrates enormous potential to empower individuals.

The hundreds of thousands of people who purchase genomic testing through direct-to-consumer businesses like 23andMe are demonstrating a robust enthusiasm for gathering genomic information. And patients enrolled in clinical trials and donors participating in population-wide genomic studies express a desire to be more informed. Patients and consumers consistently seek resources that transform their personal genomic signatures into information they can use to make better healthcare and lifestyle decisions.

And most patients and consumers are willing – often eager – to share their genomic information to aid medical research and discovery. 23andMe reports, for example, that 80% of its customers consent to share their genomes for research.

It is unmistakably clear that, in the not-too-distant future, every individual in many countries around the world will have their genome sequenced. Throughout a person’s life, medical professionals will be able to access genomic information to guide health decisions – from identifying inherited conditions to assessing risk for complex diseases to calculating appropriate treatments, drugs, and even dosages for truly personalized healthcare.

The more effectively we communicate – the more we share information within the research community and parlay that into clinically useful information for patients – the greater the benefit to all.

As much as people understandably prefer simple, definitive answers to questions about their personal health, the information that genomics provides can be complex and even ambiguous. A genetic variant might be identified, for example, that can be tied to family medical history and translated into a probability or likelihood. This was the case for Angelina Jolie Pitt, who noted in her New York Times piece that her genomic analyses “gave [her] an estimated 87 percent risk of breast cancer and a 50 percent risk of ovarian cancer.” Percentage risks are nuanced, and individual perceptions of acceptable risk vary considerably. It is therefore difficult to define precisely the circumstances under which a genetic variant becomes clinically actionable.

Or a genetic variant might be identified which gives physicians clues but does not explicitly identify a specific disease. For example, a patient seeking a diagnosis may have a genetic variant that correlates to a number of diseases involving dysregulation of lipid metabolism. Identifying the variant provides physicians and caregivers with a clear direction for further analysis and treatment, but does not yield a conclusive diagnosis or prognosis.

Or a genetic variant might be identified which has yet to be understood as causing or playing a role in disease. Such a variant may occur by chance and have no medical relevance, or its meaning may be uncovered as science in the field advances. But for the person who is having the genomic information analyzed today, it offers no actionable information.

As all of these examples illustrate, effective communication about genomic information can be a significant challenge. There is a risk that poor communication will be a barrier to the adoption of genomic medicine, but if we strive to communicate clearly with patients and the public, our successes will likely accelerate more widespread use of genomics. The role of genomics in transforming health care will grow exponentially as we all endeavor to improve communication with patients, their families, and the public at large.

Our work at WuXi NextCODE is advancing the transformation of medical practice through genomics. As part of that vision, we recognize the critical importance of facilitating effective communication among all stakeholders. We provide the resources that enable researchers and clinicians to identify disease and inform treatment decisions. And we strive to add additional value by communicating about genomic information accurately and proactively, all with the ultimate goal of meaningfully improving patient outcomes.

Genomics: Big Data Leading to Big Opportunities

The Big Data of Genomics

WuXi NextCODE Exchange

The big data of genomics will continue to expand, and our approaches to analyzing genomic data need to continue to evolve to meet the growing demands of clinicians and researchers. Cloud-based platforms such as WuXi NextCODE’s Exchange are essential to address the fundamental big data challenge of genomics.

Beyond question, we are in the midst of an explosion of “Big Data” in many facets of human endeavors. In fact, data-storage leader IBM asserts that roughly 2.5 quintillion bytes of data are generated every day and 90% of the world’s data was created in the last two years.

An outpouring of articles in scientific journals and major newspapers has highlighted the promising potential of big data in medicine, including a special section in the current issue of Nature.  Genomics has become a major source of the growth of such big data, particularly as the cost of sequencing genomes has plummeted. The raw sequence data for just one person’s whole genome use as much as 100GB—and already hundreds of thousands of individual genomes have been sequenced.  With more than 2,500 high-throughput sequencing instruments currently used in 55 countries across the globe, more genomes are added every day. The aggregate amount of genomic data is growing explosively, and next-generation sequencing (NGS) sequencing data are estimated to have doubled in volume annually since 2007.

The accumulation of genomic data is a worldwide phenomenon.  Impressive population-wide sequencing efforts are leading the way, from 100,000 genomes in England, Saudi Arabia, and Iceland to 350,000 in Qatar to a million in both China and the U.S.

And earlier this month, the CEO of the Cleveland Clinic predicted that soon children will routinely have their whole genomes sequenced at birth, implying a near-future in which 10s of millions of new genomes are sequenced annually.

Turning Data into Resources

But sequencing genomes is not enough, and the creation of genomic big data is just the beginning.

Thanks to the analysis of big data in genomics and associated informatics, we are seeing meaningful progress in cancer care and the diagnosis of rare diseases, as I have discussed here and here. We clearly have a tremendous opportunity to use the big data of genomics to continue to drive a revolution in healthcare.

Yet there is a broad consensus that a ‘data bottleneck’ is hampering collaboration and discovery. Not all researchers and physicians confronting the current onslaught of genomic big data can readily determine how to use genetic information to prevent or treat disease. To succeed, researchers and physicians clearly need resources that:

  • Draw together useful data from disparate sources;
  • Facilitate analysis and collaboration; and
  • Improve clinical practice.

The power of genomic analysis needs to expand outward from major research centers and hospitals to the myriad clinics and community hospitals where many patients receive care. To have the greatest impact on the broadest population, clinicians throughout the world’s health systems need access to the big data generated by DNA sequencing, even—or perhaps especially—if they are not affiliated with research institutions. They also need to be able to make sense of the data they have access to.

Answers in the Cloud

Sequencing provides the raw data to uncover the genetic variants that contribute to disease. But the datasets are too big to transfer repeatedly—and too big even for smaller hospitals, labs, or clinics to store onsite. Key medical advancements require not only big data, but also tools and resources to generate, interpret, and share analysis of millions of genomes.

Cloud-based platforms—such as WuXi NextCODE’s Exchange—are essential to address the fundamental big data challenge of genomics. Collaboration in the cloud works to dismantle existing “data silos”—genomic information hosted only on local servers and analyzed on idiosyncratic, closed platforms. The NextCODE Exchange, in contrast, is a browser-based hub that affords secure, seamless collaboration with colleagues around the world. Moreover, users get access to NextCODE’s tools for making the critical links between variation in the genome and disease and other phenotypes, backed by harmonized links to the the most important public reference data.

And cloud-based computing is inherently scalable: resources for data storage and analysis expand as needed, allowing researchers and physicians to leverage massive datasets to improve patient care in the clinic. The big data of genomics will continue to expand, and our approaches to analyzing genomic data need to continue to evolve to meet the growing demands of clinicians and researchers.

At WuXi NextCODE, we have built upon our heritage of conducting the largest analysis of genomic data (deCODE’s path-breaking Icelandic analysis) by assembling an ever-growing database of human genomes. We are committed to driving the movement of sequence data into patient diagnosis and care through user-friendly, leading-edge analysis and informatics. I am confident that data analysis and collaboration in the cloud will revolutionize healthcare, and exceptionally proud that WuXi NextCODE’s Exchange is at the forefront of this exciting advancement.

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.