Genomics: Forging Patient-Centric Communities

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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.

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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.

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.

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.