commercializing diagnostics


Making Genetic Testing Mainstream Medicine with Sean George, Invitae

Invitae appointed their co-founder Sean George as CEO earlier this year. He joins us to share his bold vision for the field of genetic testing.

Sean mentions the word “scale” several times in today’s interview. Invitae was by no means the first on the scene, beginning in late 2013 (just after the Myriad Supreme Court decision), but with plenty of funding and talent they have sought to push the needle forward in a big way when it comes to genetic tests. The company has always exuded the message that there is all this valuable genetic information available now, and it’s just not getting to people who could benefit.

Sean says that this urgency is what drives him in a quest to “prevent unnecessary suffering that exists today by tearing down the barriers that are keeping this powerful and fundamental information from benefiting people’s lives.”

What are the barriers? Sean says cost is number one. That there are many out there who would buy genetic tests but can’t because of the price. In an age of astronomical drug prices, is it really that crucial to squeeze off a few dollars from a genetic test? And how does Sean and Invitae make the decision when to offer a test?

While Invitae has not gone the direct-to-consumer (DTC) route, Sean says they have a bit of a hybrid model where they market directly to consumers, but sell only into the clinic.

Sean agrees that the industry has had some “whiplash”, moving forward with excitement only to have big set backs. He says that in his company presentations, he likes to show two New York Times headlines:

The first goes, “10 Years after the Human Genome Project, What Does It Matter?” And the second headline taken from 1991: “Personal Computers: So Who Needs Them Anyway?”

Need Better Standards for Your Clinical Assays? NIST Can Help

The life science tools space is flourishing. Biomedical research output is at an all time high. Today’s guest says there are over 40,000 papers published each year on cancer biomarkers.

But very few of those become commercialized tests. Why?

Many had hoped the FDA would step in and save the diagnostics industry from itself, from a race to the bottom when it came to being able to reproduce clinically relevant tests. But that’s obviously on hold. In the meantime, others are stepping in. And there is one government agency which has no regulatory authority but some power to help out.

Kenneth Cole is the group leader for developing bioassay methods and standards at the National Institute of Standards and Technology. His group has just created a new set of standards and methods for HER2 testing which is available to the clinical lab community to help improve their own assays. It’s been said on the program that this very common test for use in cancer therapy has a false positive rate of 20 percent. That's too many patients getting told the wrong thing.

Ken’s group is now going to work on EGFR and other common tests, and they can help the testing community in several ways. First of all, Ken says, they have a “the luxury of being able to focus in on the measurement techniques and on examining all the sources of variability in an assay." They also work on characterizing cell lines, which have become “an essential part of modern biology.” Ken says a big part of the work at NIST is the education of the community and of the new crop of scientists.

Do you have an assay you’d like help with? Ken is easy to reach, and NIST welcomes your requests. They have set up many partnerships from loose collaborations to projects with IP protection.

Often the best place to find solutions is in going back to the basics.

Turning on Your DNA with Justin Kao, Helix

They’re getting a lot of buzz this week. We’re pleased to have Justin Kao, a co-founder of Helix on the program today for the first time.

Launching formally yesterday, Helix has generated a good amount of enthusiasm—in no small part because they raised $100 million and are backed by Illumina. And the Helix business plan is definitely a bold one. They aim to become the DNA testing platform that supports and partners with direct-to-consumer (DTC) and clinical apps, offering genomic tests that are both medical and non-medical. Helix's part is to collect the samples, do the sequencing (exome plus), and be the app hosting platform.

23andMe co founder, Anne Wojcicki, said once on this program that “DTC testing is a whiplash culture.” This year, with a lighter hand at the FDA during the Trump administration when it comes to genetic tests, entrepreneurs are showing more boldness. This is one of those leaps forward.

“Consumer interest in DNA is exploding,” Justin says today. “The genealogy industry itself has been doubling every year for the past few years.”

Justin lists some of the app partners with which they are launching, and says they will soon be adding more, including a partnership with the clinically focused, InVitae. He says Helix has a CLIA certified lab and has been working with the FDA since they began.

Is there an inherent conflict in the attempt to host both medical genomic tests—such as the 59 ACMG recommendations--and tests that help us pick the right scarf or wine? According to the vision of Helix, DNA is DNA.

Justin compares the Helix platform to the basic enabling technology of GPS.

“What if I said to you, I’m going to the gym, and I’m going to do my standard 30 minutes on a treadmill because that’s what everyone does? In a few years, you’re going to turn to me and say, ’well that’s odd, your body and my body are different. Don’t you turn on your DNA?'"

Move Over PDL1: New Test Combo Adds RNAseq to Better Track Immune Escape

Reports from ASCO, the nation’s biggest cancer conference, this year again were full of stunning stories about the success of older and new immuno therapies. The race has never been hotter for biomarkers to target patient groups. Most of this new class of drugs--which harnesses the immune system to go after the cancer--inhibit an immune checkpoint called programmed cell death protein 1 or PDL1. So frontline cancer treatment these days typically includes a test for the PDL1 biomarker. But there are a breadth of potential targets in the immune system that promise to make this class of cancer drug even more effective.

Today we talk with Mark Gardner, CEO of OmniSeq, who has just received approval from New York State (the company is in Buffalo) to launch their new Immune Report Card.

“The biology is complicated. Even for folks that are PDL1 high, in the majority of cases those patients are not going to respond to these drugs. The average number of responders is 20-30%. So we know something else is going on. It turns out we’ve known some of the mechanisms for how the tumors are achieving "immune escape.” What we’ve not had the ability to do is to simultaneously measure across the range of hypotheses for how that tumor is escaping."

Omniseq's Immune Report Card includes mutational burden and MSI testing, which is common practice today. The two additional “legs” of the report are copy number variation for PDL1 as well as RNAseq.

The Last Major Disease To Be Studied? Ron Davis of Stanford Thinks So

Let’s say you’re a biomedical researcher looking for a place to make your mark. You find out that there is still a major disease that affects more than 2 million people in the US, and we still know virtually nothing about this disease at the molecular level. Wouldn't that stand out?

It certainly has to today's guest, Ron Davis, who is also a father searching for answers for his son. Ron has been the Director of the Stanford Genome Technology Center for decades. He collaborated on the first DNA microarray and made a major contribution to the Human Genome Project. For five years now, Ron has directed his comprehensive skill set in bioengineering--and his vast connections--to work on a cure for ME/CFS, or Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, a disease which has ravished his son, Whitney Dafoe.

With no funding from the NIH so far (he says they're not good at starting things), Ron is working to characterize the disease at the molecular level. A new device developed at his center that he calls a "nano needle" could enable the first definitive diagnostic test for patients with CFS.

The history of this disease is of patients desperate with hope but always facing a major stigma. Many medical professionals are still not on board with diagnosing a patient with CFS. Ron says this stigma and lack of interest by the research community has created a big chance.

“This is a tremendous opportunity. Here’s a major disease which at the molecular level you don’t know anything about. This has got to be the last disease like this."

Find an extensive recent written interview with Ron here.

Grail Merger, Genomic Autopsies, Overtreatment Alarm, and Controversy at Ancestry.com: May 2017 Review with Nathan and Laura

Is Grail already merging? Genomic autopsies? Does the House's new healthcare bill turn mere genetic risk into pre-conditions? Nathan and Laura are back to find meaning in the rush of May's headlines.

Laura cites a disturbing survey of over 2,000 women diagnosed with breast cancer that found half of them had unnecessary double mastectomies after genetic testing. She says unabashedly, “In big letters, it’s an ADVERTSIMENT FOR GENETIC COUNSELING.”

Speaking of alarms, Nathan says attorney Joel Winston’s blog against Ancestry.com’s terms and conditions was fear mongering.

We end with comments on the passing of one of the creators of the orphan drug industry, Henri Termeer.

Is Population Medicine Failing Us? Michel Accad

Is health the same thing for an individual as it is for a population? This question goes to the foundation of how we practice medicine today and that of most of genomic research.

Michel Accad is a cardiologist in San Francisco and the author of a new book, Moving Mountains: A Socratic Challenge to the Theory and Practice of Population Medicine, in which he uses Socrates to spar with Geoffrey Rose, a British physician and one of the architects of modern medicine.

As early as the 1950’s, Rose advocated for the idea that individuals should be treated based on bell curves of an entire population, essentially risk based medicine. This philosophy would lie at the heart of not only the British National Health Service but many public health programs. It informed the famous Framingham studies here in the U.S. In fact, the term “population medicine” is a very positive term for those working in healthcare today. Genomic medicine has been an outgrowth of population medicine.

Michel says this philosophy is failing us at the level of individual health. Third party payers, be they governments or insurance companies, are in their offices working a system based on large datasets. They develop algorithms using all kinds of risk studies. But these payers have little to no contact with the actual patients. Ironically, he says, we call it personalized medicine. Michel points to hypertension, a disease area where sixty years after Rose pushed for risk studies, cardiologists are still divided into camps over whether to treat a patient if their blood pressure lies above the average. Michel argues that population medicine is utilitarian and ultimately utopian. What are framed as scientific studies are really social engineering.

What about clinical trials, we ask Michel. Don't population studies bring doctors and patients many good drugs?

In the second half of the interview, Michel points out that a mechanistic view of biology dominates clinicians and scientists today. It’s true. Our guest last week, a well known geneticist from Stanford, compared people to cars, arguing for the need to wear health data gathering sensors.

"Right now among philosophers of science, there’s a recognition that “mechanism” is inadequate to explain cellular organisms."  The study of biology also has often been developed with tautologies, he says.  "For example, say you’re studying the beaver and you ask what is a beaver. The standard answer is to go to the genetic sequence. From the genetics, you say you have a beaver. But you have to know what beavers are in the first place in order to study a beaver. It’s a circular argument."

So what other models might we use in biology? And what can we do in healthcare if we’re not using large population studies--go back to blood letting?

How to Improve Lab Tests in the Absence of FDA Regulation?

Rubbing shoulders at molecular medicine conferences these days one senses a sigh of relief when you talk about laboratory developed tests (LDTs). With the FDA’s decision to put regulation on hold coupled with the expected confirmation of Scott Gottlieb as FDA commissioner, those in the lab testing business seem to be confidently settling back to the status quo. And those who were arguing that all we need is a “beefed up” CLIA to hold labs to better testing standards don’t appear to be motivated to do so anymore.

Several questions arise when it comes to LDTs. First of all, if regulation was truly important for enabling this revolution we call precision medicine, then why couldn’t the Obama administration get it issued? In other words, is the status quo so bad? Secondly, without the FDA even threatening to regulate, will we see the “beefed up” CLIA that many labs argued is the best way forward? Without the stick of the FDA, is the carrot gone too?

Russell Garlick is the CSO of SeraCare, a private company that has worked to improve clinical laboratory standards for over thirty years. The company recently added a new business unit for precision medicine diagnostics, and Russell was brave enough to come on today and address these questions.

As for the status quo being good enough, Russell isn't happy.

“Many of the organizations undertaking clinical trials to recruit oncology patients have lost confidence because LDTs in one geography of the United States don’t perform the same as in other parts of the United States,” he says.

Russell has worked many years with labs on IVDs--the already regulated group of diagnostic tests. He sounds disappointed that the FDA has dropped their focus on LDTs, but is hopeful that existing organizations, such as the College of American Pathologists, or even private companies such as SeraCare might step in and seize an opportunity to improve things.

“There’s a lot of status quo. And frankly it’s a little bit disappointing,” he says, “because the laboratories can benefit from [improved standards]. It’s that inertia to do something new and different."

The Story of Geisinger and Doing Genomic Medicine at the Right Pace

Mike Murray and the crew over at Geisinger are making the implementation of genomic medicine look down right easy.

In today’s interview, Mike explains GenomeFIRST Medicine, a program at the Geisinger Health System in Pennsylvania to offer care “that is based on an individual’s DNA sequence.” The healthcare provider boasts its own biobank and has partnered up with Regeneron’s Genome Center to offer exome screening to self selected patients. As of DNA Day last year, April 25th 2016, 100,000 recruits had signed up.

What has made Geisinger, who was selected to join the nation Precision Medicine Initiative, so successful with genomics? Mike points to the leadership.

“We have incredible support from the highest levels of the organization. As we’ve rolled out genomics, they are supportive and interested. As long as we’re there to explain what we’re doing and why we’re doing it, we have them on our side,” he says.

Has there been any pushback from doctors or patients?

Mike says one of the challenges they hadn’t really considered has been a “naming issue.” Sometimes one of the variants a patient tests positive for “puts their clinical story together.” But other patients may test positive for something like lynch syndrome, for example, who haven’t really had any problems.

“They really don’t have lynch syndrome, “ he says, "they have a genetic variant that goes with it. Until they have problems associated with it, they just have risk for lynch syndrome. So the problem is how do you keep something like that high enough on the radar that people and their providers know what to look for, but not so high that insurers or other entities might say, we’re going to treat them like our standard approach to lynch syndrome?”

In fact, Mike and his team have thought quite far through this challenge of how to report genomic findings back to patients. He explains what they’ve come up with in this beautifully clear interview about one of America’s most genomically experienced and progressive health systems.

New Pocket Size Nanopore Device Could Revolutionize Diagnostic and Other Testing

First of all, watch the video below.

A Santa Cruz company is now previewing a nanopore device that could be a major disruptor in molecular testing. The device is the size of a glucometer and could take all kinds of testing—perhaps someday even cancer-tracking liquid biopsies—into the home with its ease of use and ability to work with thousands of different assays.

Two Pore Guys, named for the pores not the guys, is a spinout from UC Santa Cruz and one of a growing biotech community on the west side of Santa Cruz, CA. The company has yet to do beta testing and is focused now on scaling up manufacturing of the small, relatively simple devices. CEO, Dan Heller, says Two Pore Guys has no plans to develop their own tests but will stay focused on the platform.

“We could make ten or fifteen assays and go to market with them, but why not let others make thousands and thousands of assays?” Dan asks. "They’ve already spent billions of dollars and decades developing primers or capture molecules for antibodies. Why not just give it a new life and let them sell it into the market? It's a revenue share."

So what tools might this replace? Dan lists the standard lab machines for PCR, HPLC, and mass spec. “There’s many uses of existing lab equipment that could be done on our device more quickly, cheaply, easily,” says Dan.

Based on recently developed nanopore technology, the small device looks remarkably straight forward. A molecule—just about any molecule-- is pulled through a nanopore by an electric current. The impedance of the current is the measure of the molecule. Though the device does not currently sequence DNA, its possibilities to replace other large life science tools does seem all the more real in a time when Oxford Nanopore’s small sequencing devices--also partly developed at UCSC—are proving themselves powerful tools.

Listening to Dan, the broad range of molecules and applications becomes dizzying: diagnostic testing such as liquid biopsy tests for cancer (the company is currently doing a study with UC San Francisco for a KRAS liquid biopsy test), infectious disease, border security, agriculture, animal health, and environmental testing.

It leaves us with this question in the end: why was this not done before?



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