precision medicine


By Changing a Basic Lab Step, Acoustic Liquid Transfer Having a Broad Impact

Freeman Dyson famously said, “the great advances in science usually result from new tools rather than from new doctrine.”

Today we talk with Mark Fischer-Colbrie, CEO of Labcyte, a company which has made some waves--literally-- in the life sciences by changing a very fundamental laboratory procedure: liquid transfer. For some years now, Labcyte has been selling machines that move liquid around with sound. By eliminating the need for pipette tips and other “solid” surfaces, the machines guarantee much more precision.

“Science demands precision and in ever-increasing amounts,” says Mark at the outset of today’s interview.

Acting like a rifle shooting liquid straight up, the new acoustic technology has made inroads into most life science applications. Mark talks about the Finnish Institute for Molecular Medicine (FIMM) using the new technology to do truly personalized medicine, by ex-vivo screening of cancer patient cells against hundreds of available drugs. There is often precious little sample to work with, and the errors from traditional pipetting might mean the difference of life or death. The machine is also used widely by the pharma and synthetic biology communities for its ability to reduce costs.

“Imagine saving four months on a single drug discovery cycle,” says Mark.

Recently, Astra Zeneca has integrated acoustic technology into mass spectrometry, showing the potential to immediately upgrade other tools which have been around for some time.

Should everyone change over to acoustic dispensing?

Many Biologists Today Don’t Have Enough Computer Science to Use the Databases

Moray Campbell was for all intents and purposes an accomplished and successful cancer biologist at the renowned Roswell Park Cancer Center. Then one day he woke up and realized he was becoming irrelevant. He was a traditionally trained wet lab biologist who was getting left behind by computer science. Any scientist must keep up with their field, but this was different. A few conferences and journals--reading the news everyday was not going to be enough. Facing reality, Moray enrolled in a bioinformatics masters program at Johns Hopkins.

That was in 2013.

"Biology is genomics. And genomics is basically computer science,” says Moray at the outset of today’s program. “In 2013 I would have said I look at the epigenetics of prostate cancer. Now I say that I look at the epigenomics of prostate cancer. I’ve become genomically literate."

What was it like for Moray to go back to school mid-career with teachers and homework and finals? Did he doubt his decision when the going got tough? Is it harder for biologists to learn coding or coders to learn biology?

Moray is now finished with his degree and in the process learned that as a discipline, we're still struggling with how to teach genomics to biologists.

He gives the example of datasets such as TCGA that many biologists today don’t even know how to use.

“These data are there. And they’re being used very deeply,” he says. "But I suspect by quite a restricted community. If you don’t even know how to download a file, how are you going to be able to analyze it?"

It's been a dramatic transition for Moray. Looking back now he says, "biology is dead; long live biology."

Cardiologists Love Genomics: Euan Ashley, Stanford

Euan Ashley is one of the big names in genomic medicine that has been missing from our guest list. We’re happy to correct that today.

In 2010, he led the team who did the first clinical interpretation of a human genome--that of his Stanford colleague, Steve Quake. Since then Euan, an MD PhD, has been driving to make the use of new genomic tools and discoveries a routine part of medicine at Stanford, particularly in his own discipline of cardiology.

A regular speaker on the conference circuit, Euan titles his talks, "Genomic Medicine Is Here."

"There were these one off examples of great stories that captured everyone’s imagination,” he says at the outset "but somewhere in there, what happened is it just became routine. And we started sending exome and genome sequences on patients and using that information to help find a cause, and in some cases, treatment for their condition. We were all waiting for it to happen, but it just happened under our noses.”

At the same time, Euan acknowledges that he “loses sleep at night” over “dark corners of the genome.” What are these dark corners? What recent findings were made by new long read sequencing? How has genomics impacted cardiology?

We begin with the question, if genomic medicine is here, why are there still so many skeptics?

Join us in our first interview with one of the few jazz saxophonists in our field, someone who knew he wanted to be a doctor at age four but wasn’t inspired by science--that is, until a high school teacher handed him a copy of Richard Dawkins' “The Selfish Gene” after class.

Want to Stop Smoking? Start with Epigenetic Biomarker that Tells Doc the Truth

Why are there no viable psychiatric genetic tests, we ask today’s guest.

Rob Philibert is a geneticist and psychiatrist working at the University of Iowa. He admits at the outset of today’s interview that the field of psychiatric genetics is in a “quandary.”

“The results are not matching the hype,” he says.

The place Rob has found some success is in studying epigenetics. His lab perhaps leads the world in understanding the effects of tobacco, alcohol and cannabis use on DNA methylation. An epigenetic biomarker test can tell doctors, for example, whether a person smokes and how much. Rob has founded a company, Behavior Diagnostics, to commercialize the test.

So how does this help a person quit smoking?

Rob says that there can’t be therapy until there is accurate testing.

“We like to fudge when we talk about smoking. When you look at studies, half of individuals who are smokers will misrepresent their smoking to their physicians, even when directly asked.”

Think of glucose testing for diabetes, argues Rob--reliable data about the patient is at the heart of any effective treatment.

The test wouldn’t be possible without digital PCR, Rob says, giving a shout out to technology made by Bio-Rad and funding provided from the NIH.

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."



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