Why We Need Big Infrastructure For Tackling Rare Disease

Hannes Smarason big data rare diseases

Having bigger databases, and having a mechanism that flags genomic variants, is key to optimizing patient care for entire families

Uncovering the genetics of schizophrenia is vital but challenging. As I wrote in my last post, mutations in more than 100 spots in the genome have been linked to the condition. But which ones actually play a role in the disease, and which ones are just there for the ride—innocent bystanders that just happen to occur alongside the real culprits? That’s the crucial question for scientists seeking new treatments for this condition, among them leading researchers and clinicians at our close partner, Boston Children’s Hospital (BCH).

One thing we’ve learned recently is that even a small amount of knowledge about genetic underpinnings of disease can have a big potential benefit for patients. For example, the 16p13.11 region deletion I described in that last post ended up being very important for several patients later, particularly one father and his son, recently described by our colleagues at BCH. This case highlights the importance of expanding the scope and scale of such research, and of updating and alerting patients as more is discovered—not just in schizophrenia, but across rare disease.

In their previous work, the BCH team used chromosomal microarray analysis to determine that a young boy with symptoms of schizophrenia, including psychosis, was missing an entire chunk of DNA—one copy of the chromosomal region 16p13.11, which spans several genes.

Schizophrenia in children is rare, and some researchers believe it could be an extreme variation of the disease, and so might hold important clues for the treatment of this condition in both young and old. A search of our and BCH’s databases showed that several other young patients also showed variations in that region. Just as important, it was confirmed that a parent of one of those patients also carried that deletion, and it seemed likely that another parent (not available for testing, but with reported symptoms of schizophrenia) also likely carried the deletion.

Clearly 16p13.11 seemed to be emerging as a “hotspot” for variations linked to psychosis. But the scientists were only finding this because they could go back and search the databases, and they were working their way backwards from pediatric cases to learn information that might have been medically relevant to the parents as well. All this suggests that having bigger databases, and having a mechanism that flags such variants, is key to optimizing patient care for entire families.

One case uncovered by the BCH scientists, regarding a young man who we will call Jack, brought this into sharp focus. As a teenager, Jack had undergone detailed genetic screening at BCH because of symptoms that included learning disabilities and recurrent seizures. It was determined that he had a 16p13.11 deletion, but at the time of his screening, that mutation hadn’t yet been linked to psychosis. So it became just one more detail in Jack’s medical record.

Separately, a few years later, Jack’s father was diagnosed with ADHD and treated with a high dose of mixed amphetamine salts. Within a few weeks Jack’s father experienced a manic-psychotic episode. He was prescribed an anti-psychotic and eventually recovered. Unfortunately, his son was deeply affected by his father’s breakdown and became withdrawn and depressed. Eventually, Jack also developed psychotic symptoms, which were so serious he was hospitalized.

Jack’s symptoms, thankfully, responded to anti-psychotic medication, but his doctors wondered if there was any connection between the breakdowns suffered by the father and son.

A check of Jack’s medical record revealed the 16p13.11 deletion. And seeing that detail after the link had been made between 16p13.11 and psychosis, his doctors immediately speculated that it might be a cause of Jack’s symptoms. Further, they suspected that mutation could be the “linchpin” causing psychosis in the father and the son. Jack’s father was tested, and he also carries a 16p13.11 deletion.

So here’s the lesson: if Jack’s doctors had known about the link between 16p13.11 and psychosis as soon as it emerged, they might have also suggested testing Jack’s father. If they had, the BCH doctors “believe that the psychosis could have been averted in both father and son.”

In light of this case, the BCH researchers write that they see a keen need for broad, integrated, and sophisticated infrastructure to support genomics-driven precision medicine. They have several recommendations, including that physicians need to receive regularly updated risk information about specific mutations; genetic reports on parents who are “carriers” but seem unaffected should note that problems could arise later, and families that include carriers of variations that increase risk should be monitored and given counseling.

Such activities will be well supported by tools such as WuXi NextCODE’s Genomically Ordered Relational (GOR) database and global platform for diagnosing rare disease and building a global knowledgebase. This can act as one of the key spokes in the “wheel” of genomic diagnostic process. But we also need to build in others, such as means to automatically alert doctors to important knowledge updates, monitor patient records, and connect doctors to specialists who can help refine a diagnosis as new discoveries are made. We and our partners at BCH are committed to helping create these tools.

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Headed to ASHG? If you are attending ASHG this month, join us to hear more about how rare disease studies can inform our understand of common diseases at two of our “Genomes for Breakfast” events: “Using Population Genomics to Understand Common and Rare Disease” (Oct. 18), and “Using NGS to Diagnose Rare Disease—Experiences from Three Continents” (Oct. 19).


From Rare to Common: How Rare Diseases Could Advance Schizophrenia Treatment

Rapidly advancing our understanding of rare diseases is a key area of focus for us at WuXiNextCODE. We believe genomics can both transform our ability to understand and diagnose rare conditions, and that this is going to point us is the direction of developing new treatments. At the same time, there is a growing body of evidence and even approved new therapies that show that an understanding of rare diseases can also shed new light on the genetics of complex diseases, such as heart disease, arthritis, and schizophrenia.

Understanding complex diseases is a mammoth challenge because multiple genes are usually involved as well as environmental factors. It’s particularly hard with neurologic conditions. No animal models can really mimic what happens in people’s brains, and human studies usually only provide hints of the information needed to identify potential treatments.

But rare diseases are often caused by single variants that perturb specific and identifiable biological pathways. That’s why recent genetic studies of rare types of early-onset psychosis have inspired so much interest among researchers studying schizophrenia. This disease affects more than 50 million people worldwide, but early-onset cases are very rare, suggesting they may be extreme manifestations.

A new line of inquiry into this condition emerged after a group of our close collaborators at Boston Children’s Hospital, including a scientist now at WuXi NextCODE, used chromosomal microarray analysis and whole exome sequencing in a six-year-old with profound symptoms of psychosis. They discovered this patient had a variation in the ATP1A3 gene, which was not previously associated with schizophrenic symptoms. The team wondered: was that mutation helping cause his symptoms? Would the same mutation be found in other children with early-onset schizophrenia? Could this new lead point to a biological pathway common to many people, young and old, with these same symptoms?

That would be a real breakthrough, both for this child and potentially for many other people.

The Puzzle of Schizophrenia Genetics

Schizophrenia is one of the most serious and common mental illnesses. It is often very difficult to treat, in part because of available drugs’ side effects. There are already about a dozen anti-psychotics on the market for this condition. Besides causing serious side effects, treatment must also usually be life-long. Doctors often have to try different drugs until they find something that works and which the patient can tolerate. Even then, the patient’s response can change over time.

The genetics of the disease are still not well understood. Studies of families and populations show it is heritable – the more affected close relatives someone has, the more likely that person will develop it. Many families are afflicted by both schizophrenia and bipolar disease, suggesting the two conditions are biologically related.  Both conditions seem to be associated with multiple mutations to possibly dozens of genes. Still, even in identical twins – who share exactly the same mutations – it’s not uncommon for only one twin to be affected.  Clearly, there is something other than genes afoot.

Scientists, notably including our colleagues at deCODE genetics, have put their fingers on a few genes and key pathways. Another large genomic study, with more than 30,000 cases and 100,000 controls, pointed to over 100 potential spots in the genome with mutations associated with schizophrenia. Both have found an association with mutations in a region called MHC (Major Histocompatibility Complex), a result that reinforced a then percolating idea that schizophrenia might be related to immune dysfunction.  And then just this week, Chinese researchers reported a new trove of suggestive genetic factors. But despite these massive gene hunts, we are still far from a complete picture of what genes cause this disease and how.

A Promising New Lead?

As described in the BCH blog Vector, The BCH team who found that ATp1A3 mutation in the six-year-old boy decided to do some more digging. The chromosomal microarray analysis showed that he was missing an entire chunk of DNA – one copy of the chromosomal region 16p13.11.  Next, they searched their database and found several other children with variations in that area.  One had a duplication of the 16p13.11 region, rather than a deletion. She had started experiencing hallucinations at the age of 4.  Those findings prompted the BCH researchers to launch a large-scale study, which has already enrolled at least 50 children with early-onset psychosis and will be able to leverage WuXi NextCODE’s informatics and global knowledgebase to find more cases, at BCH and beyond.

The researchers hope that ultimately their studies will not only help children with early-onset schizophrenia but also point to the biological pathways that cause the more prevalent form of the disease, which usually strikes adolescents and young adults.

Such research will hopefully provide firm leads on novel pathways that can be used to identify new drug targets. There is a tremendous need for new medicines. Most of the antipsychotic drugs we have today were developed back in the 1950s and act on the dopamine and/or serotonin receptors. They don’t improve all of patients’ symptoms, and as noted earlier, they can have serious side effects.

By uncovering new biological pathways, groups like the researchers at BCH, able to leverage massive global genomic data like that we are able to provide, aim to uncover such targets and begin the journey to providing better options for patients with rare and common diseases alike.

If you are attending ASHG this month, join us to hear more about how rare disease studies can inform our understanding of common diseases at two of our “Genomes for Breakfast” events:  Using Population Genomics to Understand Common and Rare Disease (Oct. 18), and Using NGS to Diagnose Rare Disease – Experiences from three continents (Oct. 19).




One-Two Punch: The Rise of Combination Cancer Therapies

Wuxi NextCODE genomics and combination therapies

Genomic sequencing is key to developing drugs that can be repurposed alone or used in combination to treat new types of cancer.

One of the biggest new innovations in oncology is the use of combination therapies, and a recent FDA approval for a pair of drugs (dabrafenib and trametinib) for lung cancer underscores that. This is a big step forward and we expect to see many more combinations approved in the future.

But determining which are the right pairings for which particular tumors requires a lot of data. You have to figure out which patients carry particular mutations. That requires accurate testing tools, powerful analytics, and then reams of data to guide you. That’s one of the reasons WuXi NextCODE and others are so focused on building genomic databases and advanced genomic interpretation tools.

”Just collecting and sequencing a cohort is challenging,” says Jim Lund, Director of Tumor Product Development at WuXi NextCODE.  “But having detailed clinical information along with the samples is critical. That multiplies the value of your study.” This type of data creates a “two-way street,” explains Shannon T. Bailey, Associate Director of Cancer Genetics at WuXi NextCODE. “Genomic analysis doesn’t just tell you which drugs you should use, but which treatments will have no effect.”

So what was the latest step forward? Dabrafenib (Tafinlar®) and trametinib (Mekinist®) are now approved in combination for treatment of metastatic non-small cell lung cancer (NSCLC) for patients whose tumors have a specific alteration, called V600E, in the BRAF gene. About 1%-2% of lung tumors carry that mutation, which drives tumor growth and spread through the MAPK signaling pathway. The two drugs target this pathway but through different mechanisms. Dabrafenib is a BRAF inhibitor, and trametinib is a MEK inhibitor.

Perhaps 1%-2% doesn’t seem like a lot of patients. But three things are important here:

  1. Lung cancer is a common and usually deadly disease, so a new approval for even a small number of patients will still have a lot of impact. We must chip away at the mortality rate for this condition however we can, even if the progress seems incremental.
  2. Experts have a lot of hope that combination therapies will deliver the punch we’ve been looking for against many previously intractable cancers. That opens new paths for people who otherwise faced hopelessness.
  3. The more patients receive these combinations, the more we can learn about what works, and why.

The data from today’s patients are a key part of what guide the treatments of tomorrow. This particular approval builds upon more than a decade of data from clinical trials. BRAF V600E has long been a prime suspect as a driver of several cancers. In 2014, the FDA approved this same combination of drugs for melanoma patients whose cancers were positive for the BRAF V600 mutation.

“Genomic sequencing has allowed researchers to identify specific genetic links between different cancers and then repurpose drugs developed for one cancer to treat another form of the disease,” says Lund. “This is data driving precision medicine.”

In tandem with the approval of the two-drug regimen for NSCLC, FDA also gave the OK for the Oncomine DX Target Test, a next-generation sequencing test that can detect BRAF V600E in tumor samples. It screens for multiple biomarkers including BRAF, ALK, ROS1, and EGFR genes. These can all help guide prescribing decisions.

“When we characterize lung tumors from patients, it’s a good idea to test the samples for all the changes that could be targeted by different drugs,” said Bruce E. Johnson of the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, in a press release about this recent approval. Johnson co-led the clinical trials that were the basis for FDA’s approval of the combination therapy.

It’s also important to realize how difficult it is to carry out these trials. As I noted earlier, this is a very rare mutation. To recruit the 59 patients for the combination trial that led to this NSCLC approval, researchers screened about 6,000 patients. This feat alone represents a “major achievement that underlies the difficulties in completing such a trial,” the study researchers wrote, in an editorial that accompanied the paper about their findings.

These types of advances are spurring researchers to seek more links between established therapies and known mutations. “There are many additional drugs that can be repurposed alone or in combination to treat new types of cancer, and genomic sequencing will be key to both the research and clinical implementation of these new advances in cancer treatment,” says Lund.

WuXi NextCODE, meanwhile, is trying to accelerate progress by providing a comprehensive but user-friendly informatics suite that “allows clinicians to perform complex big data queries and interpretation on a case by case basis, and to annotate that data even if they lack formal computational training,” says Bailey.

Our vision is that eventually, clinicians and individuals all around the world will be deploying their genomes to contributing to our overall knowledge of “which drug—or, perhaps, which combination—works for which patient.”

New Breast Cancer Study Underscores the Need for More Sequencing

Gene sequencing for breast cancer. More than the usual suspects at play.

Ever since actress Angelina Jolie’s highly publicized preventive mastectomy ignited discussion about BRCA 1 and BRCA2, almost everyone has heard about these genes and how they can increase risk of breast cancer.  Some people even refer to them as “the breast cancer genes.” But how genes cause this disease is much more complicated than just through the most well known BRCA mutations, as a recent study in JAMA of Ashkenazi Jewish women has demonstrated. http://jamanetwork.com/journals/jamaoncology/fullarticle/2644652

This intriguing study raises a crucial question: How much sequencing is enough when diagnosing breast cancer in the age of targeted therapies? The number of these therapies keeps growing, as does our knowledge of the links between what drugs work for women with particular mutations. But at what point should we say we have uncovered enough mutations to make a proper diagnosis? And in a field in which we know there’s a lot we don’t know, is there such a thing as enough?

The good thing is that sequencing costs are going down. “It used to be that just testing for a single gene cost several thousand dollars,” says Jim Lund, Director of Tumor Product Development at WuXi NextCODE.  “Now a panel of genes costs that and whole exome sequencing is slightly more.” At the same time, the number of mutations that are discovered and studied is increasing – in the genomes of patients and the genomes of their tumors.

The data here has a message about data itself: in principle, we should be generating as much sequencing data as possible. By generating it, storing it for vast numbers of patients and their healthy relatives, creating more comprehensive databases of all disease-linked variants, and then reanalyzing patient and tumor samples as more is learned, we can improve the risk assessment and the speed and accuracy of diagnosis for patients everywhere. Since we can do this, the question isn’t whether we can afford to do more sequencing, but why anyone would argue that we can afford not to.

The researchers who led the recent JAMA study used multiplex genomic sequencing on breast tumor samples from 1007 patients. They tested for a total of 23 known and candidate genes.  It has been well documented that women of Ashkenazi descent have a higher risk of breast and ovarian cancer, and that is at least in part because of three particular BRCA1 and BRCA2 mutations. These are called founder mutations, because they probably originated among some of the earliest members of this ethnic group, and have been propagated because of a strong history of marriage within the same community.

But the researchers working on this study wanted to know if there were mutations in other genes besides BRCA that made it more likely these particular women would develop breast cancer. The patients were from 12 major cancer centers; had a first diagnosis of invasive breast cancer; self-identified as having Ashkenazi Jewish ancestry; and had all participated in the New York Breast Cancer Study (NYBCS).

Surprisingly, only 104 of the patients were carrying one of the infamous founder alleles. Seven patients had non-founder mutations in BRCA1 or BRCA2, and 31 had mutations in other genes linked to increased risk of breast cancer, including CHEK2. The vast majority of these women carried none of the mutations that are “obvious suspects” for breast cancer. “We do not know why those women got breast cancer,” says Shannon T. Bailey, Associate Director of Cancer Genetics at WuXi NextCODE.

It’s important to note that thousands of different cancer-predisposing mutations have been found in BRCA1 and BRCA2 alone. Every population studied to date includes people with such mutations.  The three founder mutations that have been established as being common among Ashkenazis are estimated to account for about 10% of breast cancers in this group. The rest of BRCA1 and BRCA2 mutations are considered extremely rare under any circumstances.

“If you look at the genes on the panel used in this study, it looks as if they are mostly associated with DNA damage and there are no cell cycle regulating genes included,” says Bailey. “But there are all kinds of mutations that cause breast cancer, even in noncoding regulatory zones.” As a result, even the best designed panel may fall short.

That’s why this study is so important. It tells us that even with founder mutations, family history matters but it doesn’t yet always tell you everything you’d like to know. Of the women with the founder BRCA mutations, only about half had a mother or sister with breast or ovarian cancer.  It’s also already well known that just carrying a BRCA1 or BRCA2 mutation is no guarantee the patient will get cancer. For reasons we don’t yet understand, these mutations raise overall risk, but not everyone who carries one will develop the disease. So while BRCA mutations are important, we need lots more information about other genes too.

The authors of this JAMA report suggest that Ashkenazi patients with breast cancers should have “comprehensive sequencing,” including, perhaps, complete sequencing of BRCA1 and BRCA2 and possibly testing for other breast cancer genes as well.

And what about other patients?  WuXi NextCODE’s Lund points out that even the most highly regarded recommendations for breast cancer testing do not cite specific panels. Those recommendations come from the U.S. Government Task Force [https://www.uspreventiveservicestaskforce.org/Page/Document/RecommendationStatementFinal/brca-related-cancer-risk-assessment-genetic-counseling-and-genetic-testing] and the NCCN Clinical Practice Guidelines. Women with a family history will likely get more comprehensive testing, but beyond that it is not clear exactly how to proceed in every case.

At WuXi NextCODE we believe that this is clear evidence pointing to the value of doing more sequencing across all ethnic groups – for healthy individuals, patients, and their tumors, and pushing towards sequencing as standard of care. This would expand our knowledge of the genetic risk factors for breast and other cancers; provide vast new cohorts for research; and deliver the most actionable insights to patients, from risk assessment through diagnosis and then ongoing as new discoveries are made.

All of the participants in this JAMA study consented to have their sequence data used to advance research. They are already helping to do that, and this is just one study of thousands that are now underway and that are helping us to expand our data- and knowledgebases with the ultimate aim of delivering even better outcomes for all people and patients everywhere.

Let’s Speed the Genomic Revolution, UK CMO Says

Sally Davies genomics

Whatever path various societies take to tap the power of the genome to improve human health, a recent report from England’s Chief Medical Officer, Dame Sally Davies, calls out key elements for realizing that future sooner rather than later.

England’s Chief Medical Officer wants to build on the success of Genomics England’s 100,000 Genomes Project and take her country swiftly into the age of precision medicine. The goal is to get patients optimal treatment more quickly and with fewer side effects. That means using genomics to more accurately guide prescribing—initially for cancer, infections, and rare diseases—but increasingly for all conditions and overall wellness and prevention.

Dame Sally Davies’ vision is anchored in the work that Genomics England is engaged in today and to which WuXi NextCODE and other leading genomics organizations have contributed. It’s a rallying cry that many voices are joining and underpins our work not only in England, but also similar efforts we are helping to advance in countries near and far, from Ireland to Singapore.

Her call is particularly forceful in three areas that she rightly singles out as critical to realizing the potential of precision medicine to revolutionize healthcare:

  • Industrial scale: Genomics has in many ways been treated and developed as a “cottage industry,” yielding important advances. But the need is massive scale in the era of population health (e.g., whole-genome sequencing, or WGS).
  • Privacy AND data sharing: Dame Sally wants to provide and ensure high standards of privacy protection for genomic data but is adamant that this should not come at the price of stifling the data sharing and large-scale collaboration that will transform medical care and many patients’ lives. She wants to move beyond “genetic exceptionalism,” which holds that genomic data is fundamentally different or more valuable than other data. Like other sensitive data, we can protect genomic data well and use it for public benefit.
  • Public engagement: She calls for a new “social contract” in which we, as individuals and members of society, recognize that all of us will benefit if we allow data about our genomes to be studied. That holds whether we are talking within our own countries or globally.

In England, as elsewhere, these shifts require the input of political leaders, regulators, and a range of healthcare professionals, including researchers as well as care providers. Crucially, such a transformation also requires a level of commitment on the part of patients throughout the National Health Service (NHS) and citizenry in general. If England takes this bold step forward, it could have tremendous effects. But “NHS must act fast to keep its place at the forefront of global science,” said Davies. “This technology has the potential to change medicine forever.”

To date, more than 30,000 people have had their genomes sequenced as part of the 100,000 Genomes Project. But there are 55 million people in the UK, and Dame Sally would like to see genomic testing become as normal as blood tests and biopsies for cancer patients: She wants to “democratize” genomic medicine, making it available to every patient that needs it.

We share and are, indeed, taking part in helping to realize much of Dame Sally’s vision as we work to accelerate Genomics England’s work and engage with our partners globally. As we know, different societies have different models of healthcare and different approaches to research and care delivery. But the ability for people anywhere to tap into the power of the genome to improve their health is at the very core of our own mission as an organization, and we applaud Dame Sally for calling out some of the key elements for realizing that future sooner rather than later.

Whatever path different societies choose to follow toward precision medicine, her recent report provides one enlightening view of a starting point for making the leap.

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.

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.

Genomics Offers Game-Changing Solution to Rare Disease Diagnosis, Costs

Hannes Smarason Wuxi NextCODE

As genomics is used more and supported by ever-more robust analysis and interpretation, its potential to offer a solution to diagnosing rare diseases is truly game-changing.

I believe strongly and have previously blogged on the potential for genomics to shift the care paradigm for rare diseases, and here I’d like to detail in particular the huge potential value genomics can add to rare disease diagnosis. 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. Rare diseases can be chronic, progressive, debilitating, disabling, severe, and life-threatening.

When a patient presents with a spectrum of unusual symptoms, a costly scramble naturally begins to diagnose the patient’s disease. Some people refer to this diagnosis process for rare diseases as a “diagnostic odyssey,” as patients and their families are subjected to test after test while being handed from one doctor to another, oftentimes to medical centers far from their home. Too often, this odyssey yields no concrete diagnosis or—worse—misdiagnosis. The direct medical costs can be significant, and the indirect costs—the frustration and disillusion felt by the patients and the family—can be extraordinary.

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. A recent article in Bloomberg BusinessWeek highlighted medical histories of two patients who recently received a diagnosis informed by genomics. In both these 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.

As genomics is used more and supported by ever-more robust analysis and interpretation, I expect these types of clear successes to become even more commonplace. And the value to the healthcare system and the patient is clear, expressed powerfully in the Bloomberg BusinessWeek piece:

While there isn’t yet a cure, Smith is participating in research that may one day lead to treatments or more supportive care. “Just being connected feels good. I felt alone for a long time,” she says. “And I want to do it for the bigger picture, too. Not just for myself, but so I can be counted.”


Bringing Together Core Technologies Unlocks Genomic Data to Improve Healthcare

genome analysis technologies

Within the “3-legged stool” of genomics-enabling technologies, lower-cost genome sequencing has reached a point of strong commercial viability, and the remaining two legs—genomic analysis tools database storage—are rapidly evolving to support the use of genomic information in medical care.

The adoption of genome sequencing technology is rapidly expanding as medical centers around the world embrace its utility in informing healthcare decisions—an emerging reality of personalized medicine.

There are three important areas of technology that are driving the use of genomic data in healthcare:  genome sequencing, genomic analysis tools, and database storage.

The first of these—genome sequencing—has advanced to the point that it is more widely accessible, with the cost of sequencing at nearly $1,000 or less. This lower cost of genome sequencing has reached a critical milestone to enable the use of sequencing as a mass-market product for medical care.

The second and third core genomic technologies—genomic analysis tools and database storage—are in the midst of evolution. Their progress and integration are critical for the next stage of adoption of genomic data into health care.

The rapidly evolving legs of the “3-legged stool” of genomics technology are genomic analysis tools and database storage.

  • Genomic Analysis Tools: Since the human genome was first sequenced more than a decade ago, an increasingly robust body of research has showcased the links between mutations identified in the genome and disease risk. Informatics tools have been developed by medical centers and genomics companies to apply to whole-genome samples. Increasingly, these genome analysis tools will need to adapt to the steady pace of new genomic linkages to disease and to operate at a level approaching “big data.”
  • Database Storage for Human Genomes: There are a growing number of robust databases of human genomes, including data for healthy people or those with certain diseases. When properly analyzed, these databases offer the potential to provide the medical community with a reference library against which to compare genetic data. Large-scale, high-quality databases are an essential element to cross-reference a patient genome to guide more informed medical decisions.

Recently, two leading genomics companies—WuXi and NextCODE Health—have combined their technology capabilities in these two areas. WuXi has industry-leading capabilities to analyze, store, and manage the vast amounts of genomic data. NextCODE Health brings a leading-edge system for sequence-based clinical diagnostic applications and genome analysis.

The combination of WuXi’s foundational genomic database storage and management and NextCODE’s sophisticated genome analysis tools will integrated the key components that are most rapidly evolving to apply genomics to medical care.

Initiatives like these advance the state-of-the-art in genomic analysis and database storage, bringing us to the heart of helping the world to fully harness personalized medicine and providing tools directly to doctors to provide better diagnostics and treatments to patients.

The progress to date has been amazing. Yet the opportunities ahead are even more extraordinary to improve the speed, accuracy, and accessibility of genomic information to improve human health.