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.


Maintaining Momentum Post-ASHG: Maximizing the Value of Large Genomic Databases

The newly launched NextCODE Exchange provides a browser-based hub for multi-center sharing and collaboration on collective data from massive whole-genome databases like the Haplotype Reference Consortium (HRC).

The newly launched NextCODE Exchange provides a browser-based hub for multi-center sharing and collaboration on collective data from massive whole-genome databases like the Haplotype Reference Consortium (HRC).

The American Society of Human Genetics (ASHG) meeting convened this week in San Diego, bringing together genetics experts from around the world to discuss programs with great potential to advance genomic-based medicine in the years to come.

To maintain the momentum generated this week, we need to find ways to integrate these important ideas, insights and programs, and to maximize the use of the massive databases that have been launched to support research on cancer, rare diseases and other pressing health topics.

One of the databases unveiled during the meeting was the Haplotype Reference Consortium, which aims to become the world’s most comprehensive database of genetic variations. Large databases like the HRC, along with several others already underway, can be tremendously helpful to researchers finding answers to some of the most challenging diseases. But there remains a significant bottleneck: these large, cumbersome databases cannot easily be shared and manipulated, limiting their utility for broad, multi-center genomic research.

The solution lies in the newly launched NextCODE Exchange (see release here). This browser-based hub allows for the sharing and harmonizing of massive whole-genome databases like the HRC to accelerate research. The integrated architecture allows users to visually confirm and validate findings in raw sequences, collaborating and sharing with others around the world who may have complementary research underway.

The momentum generated during ASHG will be multiplied by sharing and learning from the world’s collective genomic data on the NextCODE Exchange. Learn more here.

Population-Scale Research Efforts Enabled by Progress in Sequencing

population-scale genomics

Significant insights gained from population-scale genomic studies, based on the knowledge of genetic variation and disease causation, will help to enable a new reality of personalized medicine and treatment.

The ability to sequence whole genomes quickly and economically is driving interest in population-scale sequencing efforts that can reveal meaningful insights on a much more systematic basis than previous approaches. A range of large initiatives announced recently are prime examples of the trend in population sequencing, including industry programs by Regeneron and Human Longevity, and the 100,000 Genomes Project by Genomics England. Perhaps better than any other effort since the founding of deCODE in Iceland, the establishment of a high-throughput Genomics Center at Sidra Medical and Research Center in Qatar embodies the movement toward these types of population studies. The eventual goal of the project is to sequence the entire Qatari population of some 300,000 people. But from the beginning, the Sidra facility will help advance genetic mapping projects, including the creation of Arab consensus genome to obtain a better understanding of genetic variants that influence health across Arab populations and, indeed, beyond. In addition to these efforts, the center will focus on uncovering the causes of rare genetic diseases. The significant insights that can be gained from population-scale studies, based on the knowledge of genetic variation and disease causation, will help to enable a new reality of personalized medicine and treatment. And this is where efficient, powerful and industrial-scale analysis will become critical. NextCODE’s analytics and interpretation systems have already been tested at such scale, as they are based on the world’s first and largest population genomics effort—that of deCODE. [see blog post] Our systems will be useful tools to efficiently deliver insights based on the vast amount of data that will be generated by these major population-based efforts to improve the state of global healthcare.

Personalized Medicine: The Future is Almost Here

The new era of personalized medicine.

The achievement of low-cost genome sequencing and the use of genomic data to better understand diseases are advancing the exciting new era of personalized medicine.

It’s been more than a decade since the human genome was first sequenced. Since then, we have been on the journey of applying this profound new discovery to create personalized medicine and advance human health.

Two significant triumphs along this human genome journey:

  • Using genomic data to better understand diseases; and
  • Achieving low-cost genome sequencing.

Each of these accomplishments has been a stepping stone into the exciting new era that is dawning now: where genomic information is becoming integrated into medical care.

Using Genomic Data to Better Understand Diseases

Let’s take a look back at the early days of using genomic data to connect the dots between genetic mutations and disease. From 1997-2004, I was part of the leadership team at deCODE, the Icelandic genomic company. This was the period when deCODE was building the world’s most productive human genomics platform, with a database of  tens of thousands of individuals who participated in genetic studies and including the largest database of genomes to this day. deCODE’s genomic engine was able to successfully identify the genetic variations associated with human disease. This resulted in dozens of groundbreaking discoveries that were published in major, peer-reviewed journals.

The legacy of deCODE was the creation of an industrialized platform capable of massive storage and analysis capabilities. This enabled researchers to crunch genomic data to gain insights about genetic variants, or risk factors, associated with many common diseases. deCODE’s premise was that once the genetics of disease was better understood that information could be used to create new ways to diagnose, treat and prevent disease. However, when I left deCODE in 2004, there were still barriers to overcome before this genomic information could be widely applied to the level of an individual patient. Chief among them was that the cost of genome sequencing was still prohibitively high. (deCODE was subsequently acquired by Amgen).

Achieving Low-Cost Genome Sequencing

Back in 2004, the cost to sequence a single human genome was hundreds of thousands of dollars. Today that cost is a few thousand dollars (and, in fact, fast approaching $1,000) for a whole genome sequence. DNA sequencing costs continue to fall, as speed and accuracy increase.

This means we are rapidly approaching a tipping point where, as the sequencing of human genomes becomes more economical, its adoption in the medical community becomes more widespread and genomic data can become more routine in medical care. This is why personalized medicine is becoming a reality.

The Era of Genome Sequencing in Medical Care

The steep drop in the costs of sequencing, combined with the explosion of research on gene variants and disease, mean the time is fast approaching when genome sequencing will become routine in medical care. Today, pathologists perform blood cultures to decide which antibiotics will stop a patient’s bacterial infection. Soon a patient sample can be taken to perform a genome sequencing to analyze the genetic characteristics of a patient to determine ways a disease can be prevented or, if they are sick, which treatments might work best for their disease.

The body of genomic knowledge and the large databank of human genomes built by pioneers like deCODE established the key building blocks that enable genome sequencing to have predictive power for individual patients. As more human genomes are sequenced and more genetic variants are associated with disease, the predictive power of knowing about risk genes and effective treatments for each patient – a.k.a. personalized medicine – will become an essential part of medical care.

Genome Sequencing Being Implemented by Medical Centers

In preparation for the future of personalized medicine, major medical centers in the U.S., Europe and Asia are actively beginning to install DNA sequencers and supercomputers as important tools for integrating genome sequencing into medical care. These medical centers are taking initial steps toward the routine sequencing of every patient’s genome to define the ideal course of prevention and treatment based on variants found in a patient’s genes.

Evidence of this adoption of genome sequencing by medical centers appeared in an article in The New York Times in April 2013 citing that:

  • Medical centers in New York City are spending more than $1 billion on new genomic research centers;
  • Several hospitals around the U.S. are undertaking systematic genome sequencing in patients;
  • Mount Sinai Medical Center has a program in which 24,000 patients participate in a biobank to include their DNA sequence and research over their lifetimes;
  • Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center sequenced 16,000 tumors from cancer patients in 2012; and
  • Phoenix Children’s Hospital opened a new institute in December 2012 to sequence the genomes of 30 percent of their childhood cancer patients.

For now, the use of whole genome sequencing in medical practice is still in its infancy, but the pace of progress continues to accelerate. Clearly, genome sequencing will soon become part of the nucleus of medical care. This will herald a new era in personalized medicine revolutionizing healthcare as we know it and transforming our lives. When do you think genome sequencing will become a part of the medical decisions in your life?