precision medicine

When an Exome Test Is Part of the Therapy and Not a Diagnostic: John West on Personalis and Personalized Cancer Vaccines

About six years ago there was a wave of genome interpretation startups getting their first rounds of funding. One of them was Personalis, a company founded by a well known group of Stanford geneticists and bioinformaticians.

John West is the CEO of Personalis, and he joins us today to talk about how the company is participating in the dramatic shift in drug development toward immuno oncology drugs. Our listeners might remember John from his days at Solexa where he served as CEO and presided over the sale of the company to Illumina.

At the same time Personalis came on the scene, the first drug that would harness the immune system to fight cancer was being approved by the FDA, Yervoy by Bristol-Myers Squibb. This was the first of four drugs known as checkpoint inhibitor drugs. These four drugs have had spectacular success and together generate revenue of over 6 billion per year, a level which has doubled in the past year.

John and Personalis are working with biotech companies on a new generation of immuno therapies known as personalized cancer vaccines. These new drugs are actually custom synthesized for each patient after an “immunogram” or genetic workup of the tumor has been done. We know today that tumor growth is driven mostly by neoantigens, or new antigens which arise from mutations that happen after the cancer first appears, says John. So an immunogram done by Personalis must look at all the genes (over 20,000) and not just the original driver mutations. An immunogram could only be done in the last few years with the latest developments in next gen sequencing and algorithm creation.

How far along are these new personalized cancer vaccines? And what is the commercialization challenge for Personalis?

“We are essentially an integral part of the therapy,” says John. "So we don’t think of it as a diagnostic test. We think about it as the initial part of the manufacturing of the therapy."

Biomarker Panel to Predict Type 1 Diabetes

When we talk precision medicine on Mendelspod, we’re usually talking about oncology. But today we shift our focus to diabetes.

Raghu Mirmira is an MD PhD at Indiana University who is working on a panel of biomarkers that would predict Type 1 diabetes. That’s right. Predict.

Having already found a DNA biomarker candidate which detects dying beta cells using the new technology of digital PCR, Raghu is now working to improve the panel with other metabolites.

Will we some day have a Myriad Genetics for diabetes? Raghu says, yes. But he warns that we must also develop new treatment options to go along with a predictive blood test.

“Before we get to the point where this is a commercially available test, we need to be doing further studies to figure out what’s the outcome of individuals who test in a particular way. And what kind of interventions could improve those outcomes in some way.”

Reference Genome Making Major Strides in Ethnic Diversity, Says Valerie Schneider, NCBI

A couple months back, we reported on a study showing that genetic tests for an inherited heart disorder were more likely to come back with false positive results for black Americans than for whites. The study provoked many in our industry to urge scientists to incorporate more ethnic diversity in their studies. So far, biology has been too Eurocentric—the databases are implicitly racist, they argue.

Perhaps no dataset for human genomics is referenced more than the human reference genome, or the GRCh38. This is the "Rosetta Stone” of genomics used by scientists and clinicians everywhere who are assembling and studying genomes. Valerie Schneider is a scientist at the NCBI who works everyday on the GRCh38. She says major strides--enabled in part by better sequencing technologies--have been made lately to add diversity to the GRCh38 and to create other reference genomes for various populations around the globe.

The populations represented with these new projects include a Han genome, a Puerto Rican, a Yoruban, a Columbian, a Gambian, a Luhya, a Vietnamese, and one or two more Europeans.

“The sequence from these genomes is planned for correcting errors and adding new "alt loci" to the reference genome. But these new assemblies are also intended to stand on their own as complements to the reference,” says Valerie.

Valerie reminds us that it’s still early days in genomics. There’s so much diversity in the human population that her team is not sure whether having a single reference for each of these ethnic groups will be sufficient.

With more reference genomes comes the challenge of how best to compare and visualize them. There is a major need for tools that can show large nests of sequence as opposed to a linear reference, she says in today’s interview.

What is Valerie's take on the term “reference quality genomes”, and how will a better reference genome improve precision medicine?

How Personalized is Personalized Medicine? Krister Wennerberg on FIMM’s Individualized Systems Medicine

Most of the time, when we talk about personalized medicine, it’s not that personalized. What we’re really talking about is population-based medicine. However, there is a growing number of clinical/research groups around the world, including the folks at the Finnish Institute for Molecular Medicine (FIMM) who are combining an older method of functional profiling with new molecular profiling to come up with what the Fins call 'Individualized Systems Medicine.'

Krister Wennerberg joins us today from FIMM where he is the leader of the Cancer Chemical Systems Biology Group. He says that traditionally in our industry there has been two factions: one that has been focused on molecular profiling— which, he says, is leading today—and another group which is focused on functionalized testing, or seeing how the individual cancer cells respond to drugs through ex-vivo screening. This second approach has been around for some time but hasn’t been that successful. These two factions have been somewhat opposing each other.

“I don’t think that’s the way to think about it,” says Krister. "We really need to merge these together, and that’s how we’re really going to make advances. We need to start with the functional responses, and then try to lead back to what are the molecular drivers of this response."

Part of the special approach at FIMM is to use a new, more precise method of liquid handling for their screening which gives them greater quality control and the ability to make the most of each sample.

Gene and Tonic, July 8, 2016: 49ers Going into Genetic Testing

Just two years at their new home in Silicon Valley and not far down the road from 23andMe, the San Francisco 49ers are offering their fans genetic testing and the chance to donate blood to advance human genome research.

Announcing a partnership with the company ORIG3N, the 49er Chief Operating Officer, Ethan Casson, says that “this is the first agreement of its kind where a major sports organization can give back to the human genome some of what the genome has given to professional football players.”

Sequenom Patent Loss a Threat to Personalized Medicine, Says Kevin Noonan

It’s a non-decision with big implications. On Monday, the Supreme Court turned down an appeal by Sequenom in their patent case with Ariosa. The rebuff by the highest court kills Sequenom’s prenatal screening test patent for good.

Sequenom was first to market with their prenatal test that screened for chromosomal abnormalities, such as Trisomy 21. And there was nothing unusual in Sequenom’s receiving patent No. 6,258,540 for the test based on a novel discovery by researcher Dennis Lo showing that there was fetal DNA in the mother’s blood. The discovery sparked one of the fastest growing fields in the history of diagnostics.

The final result on this case has many in the field scratching their heads. If Sequenom can’t defend their patent for such a novel test, then what route should diagnostics companies take to protect their IP?

Today we’re joined by Kevin Noonan, a well known biotech patent lawyer and regular Mendelspod contributor, to discuss the case and what it means for our industry.

Kevin points out that in the precedent setting case of Mayo, the Supreme Court acknowledged that the case would end the patenting of many diagnostics, but expressly urged Congress to act and give the patent office more clarification. Until they do, Kevin says, companies are left with the only option of “hiding their technology” in order to get a return on their investment.

“We have this great age of personalized medicine that we’ve been hearing about since the Human Genome Project, which could die on the vine,” he says. "As a business person, you’re not gonna go into that business, you’re going to invest in the next “i” something because that you can protect. As a policy matter, it’s a horrible outcome."

When Do We Move to Population Based Cancer Screening for Those with High Genetic Risk? Josh Schiffman, U of U

Last year when we were promised a soon-to-be-on-the-market, pan cancer, genetic based screening test, many of us were taken aback at the hubris. Not only does the science have a ways to go, there are deep ethical conflicts to work through. However, cancer screening based on a patient’s genetics is already being done in certain niche areas.

Josh Schiffman is a cancer researcher at the Huntsman Cancer Institute in Utah. He’s also a pediatric oncologist serving as the Medical Director of the Institute’s High Risk Pediatric Cancer Clinic. At the clinic, Josh and his colleagues put out a study where they demonstrated that early cancer surveillance in patients who have a rare disease called Li-Fraumeni Syndrome can dramatically increase overall survival.

Why Li-Fraumeni Syndrome? It turns out that patients from families with Li-Fraumeni Syndrome have only one working copy of the P53 gene, a well known protective mutation for cancer. Because of this genetic predisposition to cancer, these patients were screened early with whole body MRIs and other blood tests. For the study, patients whose tumors were found due to the early cancer screening were compared to those patients whose cancer was diagnosed because they presented with symptoms. The overall survival rate for those screened early was 100 percent compared to just 20 percent in the later group.

Should Josh’s work with this sub-population translate out to doing cancer screening for all based on known high risk cancer mutations? Josh says let’s do the study. As for the ethical concerns, he feels the landscape of cancer genetics has shifted.

“Many years ago we didn’t offer P53 screening to children, because there was nothing you could do about it,” he says in today’s interview. "But now that we’ve come a far way and technology has improved, if there is something we can do about it, then it makes more sense to do the test. So we believe very strongly that all children at increased risk [for cancer] should be tested."

A Sneak Peek into the Future of Clinical Genomics with Ben Solomon, Inova

We hear from some that soon each baby's genome will be sequenced at birth. This vast amount of genomic information will be stored in a person's medical record for life and be referenced for personalized healthcare, be it for a diagnostic, a prognostic, or a prediction. But others say that it is still way too early to be generating so much information on each person when we know so little about the genome. This camp argues that we should deal with patients on a case by case basis using a more targeted approach.

The Inova Translational Medicine Institute offers us a glimpse into questions such as the whole genome vs targeted approach. A unique not-for-profit research institute, they are using genomic information from patients in the Inova Health System’s five hospitals to move them closer to personalized medicine. With this direct access to patients, solid funding, and a location in the Washington/Baltimore government research hub, the institute is no doubt the envy of anyone working to implement genomics into the clinic. Add to that, Inova’s CEO is a former NCI director, John Niederhuber, who has hired some of the best and brightest in genomics.

We talk today with Ben Solomon, who was hired out of the NIH to be leader of the institute’s Medical Genomics Division. He says that one of their first studies looks at the genomes of over 1,000 pre-term birth babies and could be a model for clinical sequencing on a larger scale.

“We enroll folks about halfway through pregnancy," says Ben in today's show. "We generate whole genome sequencing on the baby when the baby is born, but we start collecting samples from mom and dad before the baby is born. Then we do whole genome sequencing on the full trio. And we follow them longitudinally, hopefully throughout their whole life. The oldest patients are four to five years old now. We re-consent them at a certain age.”

The study is an example of staying away from any bias that comes with looking for a particular disease. In fact, Ben says, in the age of genomics, the classical presentation of disease is drastically changing. A longitudinal study like this is about finding the "natural history" of many different conditions.

This particular study uses whole genome sequencing, but much of the work the institute does is targeted sequencing. Ben says that though it's often a blurred line, his team first determines whether the case is research or clinical. If it's a clinical setting, he says the first line approach is to go with a targeted panel, pointing out that the use of panels has grown tremendously over the past few years replacing the "one-off" genetic testing.

"A few years ago when someone was coming in with a question of hereditary breast and ovarian cancer, the standard was BRCA1 and BRCA2 testing. And very quickly that has changed into almost always larger panel testing. And even the panels offered are getting much larger."

Ben says there is often resistance to the growing size of panels - including from both genetics professionals as well as other clinicians and patients -because with larger panels, the likelihood of seeing variants of unknown significance increases and with that the challenge of interpretation.

This question of targeted vs whole genome leads to a discussion about how much genome interpretation Ben and his team do in house, demands of a bioinformatics infrastructure, and costs.

Flipping Drug Development Upside Down: Niven Narain, BERG Health

The promise of rational drug design has driven pharma companies for years. The history of the industry has been one of trial and error, or “guess and check”, as scientists often say. Companies have screened thousands and thousands of compounds looking for one that might work—the proverbial needle in the haystack. With the arrival of molecular profiling and an explosion in understanding of basic biology, many in our field have hoped to make drug development more predictable: to start with the biology, and with the aid of new computing power, design a drug to work in a specific biological setting. But instead we've been making the haystack bigger. When will we see a tipping point where more drugs than not are derived through logic rather than luck? Though there have been great examples—Merck’s Truspot being the first and Novartis’ Gleevec perhaps the best known—rational drug design still remains a mostly unfulfilled promise.

BERG Heatlh, a Boston based pharma company, is working to change that with their AI platform and a new “back to biology” approach. Today we talk with BERG CEO, Niven Narain, who also is a co-founder of the company.

“We’re flipping the entire [drug development] model upside down,” Niven says. "We’re going to ask the patient biology what has gone wrong and generate as much of the omics data as we can from that patient. We then correlate that to their histories and health records in a population based way and compare it to healthy individuals. Out of that analysis we derive potential drug candidates and biomarkers.”

BERG has secured a considerable amount of press with the attention grabbing headline, “company using AI to cure cancer.” Backed by billionaire Carl Berg, the company can’t be faulted for thinking small. But are they doing anything different than other pharma companies? In today’s interview, Niven says they are looking at 15 trillion data points on a single sample. And the scientific approach is perhaps more robust that we’ve seen in the past. Rather than relying on the latest biomarker studies, the company takes a non-biased approach by letting the patient’s data create it’s own picture of the biology.

Medicine and the Limits of Science with Michel Accad, MD

Are drug prices really too high? If so, how do we bring them down? Is precision medicine and the use of molecular profiles really making a difference in healthcare today?

These are questions that regularly haunt our industry and the journalists who cover it. But there will be no answers until we face the grand question of all, what today's guest calls the most nagging question in medicine: What is health?

Today we begin a new series focused on just this question.

When I came across Michel Accad’s recent blog, Why I Don’t Believe in Science, of course it provoked me to click. Either he would be a terrible nutcase, in which case I'd lose the time it takes to discover this, or it might turn out to be one of those disturbing points of the day when we have to actually do some thinking. What I found was a cardiologist based in San Francisco who was doing some deep philosophical thinking about medicine today. And, obviously, one savvy enough to get some click through. It turns out Michel does believe in science, but he doesn’t share the pervasive view that medicine is a continuum of science.

What are his thoughts about precision medicine? What is his definition of health?

We always jump at the chance to have a medical doctor on the program, and a doctor who is also a philosopher is a double treat. Today's interview takes us down a different path than our typical shows, and we'd like to invite the audience to send us your feedback by clicking here.

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