And in less than eight hours, they had diagnosed a child with a rare genetic disorder, results that would take clinical laboratory testing weeks to return, demonstrating the clinical value of the genomic process
In another major genetic sequencing advancement, scientists at Stanford University School of Medicine have developed a method for rapid sequencing of patients’ whole human genome in as little as five hours. And the researchers used their breakthrough to diagnose rare genetic diseases in under eight hours, according to a Stanford Medicine news release. Their new “ultra-rapid genome sequencing approach” could lead to significantly faster diagnostics and improved clinical laboratory treatments for cancer and other diseases.
The Stanford Medicine researchers used nanopore sequencing and artificial intelligence (AI) technologies in a “mega-sequencing approach” that has redefined “rapid” for genetic diagnostics. The sequence for one study participant—completed in just five hours and two minutes—set the first Guinness World Record for the fastest DNA sequencing to date, the news release states.
The Stanford scientists described their new method for rapid diagnosis of genetic diseases in the New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM) titled, “Ultrarapid Nanopore Genome Sequencing in a Critical Care Setting.”
“A few weeks is what most clinicians call ‘rapid’ when it comes to sequencing a patient’s genome and returning results,” said cardiovascular disease specialist Euan Ashley, MD, PhD (above), professor of medicine, genetics, and biomedical data science, at Stanford University in the news release. “The right people suddenly came together to achieve something amazing. We really felt like we were approaching a new frontier.” Their results could lead to faster diagnostics and clinical laboratory treatments. (Photo copyright: Stanford Medicine.)
Need for Fast Genetic Diagnosis
In their NEJM paper, the Stanford scientists argue that rapid genetic diagnosis is key to clinical management, improved prognosis, and critical care cost savings.
“Although most critical care decisions must be made in hours, traditional testing requires weeks and rapid testing requires days. We have found that nanopore genome sequencing can accurately and rapidly provide genetic diagnoses,” the authors wrote.
To complete their study, the researchers sequenced the genomes of 12 patients from two hospitals in Stanford, Calif. They used nanopore genome sequencing, cloud computing-based bioinformatics, and a “custom variant prioritization.”
Their findings included:
- Five people received a genetic diagnosis from the sequencing information in about eight hours.
- Diagnostic rate of 42%, about 12% higher than the average rate for diagnosis of genetic disorders (the researchers noted that not all conditions are genetically based and appropriate for sequencing).
- Five hours and two minutes to sequence a patient’s genome in one case.
- Seven hours and 18 minutes to sequence and diagnose that case.
How the Nanopore Process Works
To advance sequencing speed, the researchers used equipment by Oxford Nanopore Technologies with 48 sequencing units called “flow cells”—enough to sequence a person’s whole genome at one time.
The Oxford Nanopore PromethION Flow Cell generates more than 100 gigabases of data per hour, AI Time Journal reported. The team used a cloud-based storage system to enable computational power for real-time analysis of the data. AI algorithms scanned the genetic code for errors and compared the patients’ gene variants to variants associated with diseases found in research data, Stanford explained.
According to an NVIDIA blog post, “The researchers accelerated both base calling and variant calling using NVIDIA GPUs on Google Cloud. Variant calling, the process of identifying the millions of variants in a genome, was also sped up with NVIDIA Clara Parabricks, a computational genomics application framework.”
Rapid Genetic Test Produces Clinical Benefits
“Together with our collaborators and some of the world’s leaders in genomics, we were able to develop a rapid sequencing analysis workflow that has already shown tangible clinical benefits,” said Mehrzad Samadi, PhD, NVIDIA Senior Engineering Manager and co-author of the NEJM paper, in the blog post. “These are the kinds of high-impact problems we live to solve.”
In their paper, the Stanford researchers described their use of the rapid genetic test to diagnose and treat an infant who was experiencing epileptic seizures on arrival to Stanford’s pediatric emergency department. In just eight hours, their diagnostic test found that the infant’s convulsions were attributed to a mutation in the gene CSNK2B, “a variant and gene known to cause a neurodevelopmental disorder with early-onset epilepsy,” the researchers wrote.
“By accelerating every step of this process—from collecting a blood sample to sequencing the whole genome to identifying variants linked to diseases—[the Stanford] research team took just hours to find a pathogenic variant and make a definitive diagnosis in a three-month-old infant with a rare seizure-causing genetic disorder. A traditional gene panel analysis ordered at the same time took two weeks to return results,” AI Time Journal reported.
The Stanford research team wants to cut the sequencing time in half. But for now, the five-hour rapid whole genome sequence can be considered by clinical laboratory leaders, pathologists, and research scientists a new benchmark in genetic sequencing for diagnostic purposes.
Stories like Stanford’s rapid diagnosis of the three-month old patient with epileptic seizures, point to the ultimate value of advances in genomic sequencing technologies.
—Donna Marie Pocius