Genetic scientists show how rapid WGS is helping doctors determine best treatments for patients with life-threatening conditions
Clinical laboratory scientists will recall that last year, Dark Daily covered how researchers at Stanford University School of Medicine had developed a method for performing rapid whole genomic sequencing (WGS) in as little as five hours. We predicted that their new ultra-rapid genome sequencing approach could lead to significantly faster diagnostics and improved clinical laboratory treatments for cancer and other diseases. And it has.
The research scientist responsible for that breakthrough is cardiologist and Associate Dean of Stanford University School of Medicine, Euan Ashley, MD, PhD. Ashley is also a professor of genomics and precision health, cardiovascular medicine, genetics, and biomedical data science and pathology.
The Stanford research team’s ultra-rapid genomic sequencing method pairs nanopore sequencing with artificial intelligence (AI) to create a mega-sequencing approach. The results of this new method earned the Stanford researchers a Guinness World Record for fastest DNA sequencing, and Ashley himself was given a spot on the 2023 STATUS List of life science leaders.
Ashley’s success demonstrates that the drive to reduce the diagnostic time to answer is a market dynamic encouraging research companies to continue finding ways to make WGS faster to accomplish, cheaper to perform, and the DNA sequences generated more accurate.
It is precisely these developments that will provide clinical laboratories and anatomic pathology groups with new means for improving diagnosis and the identification of the most appropriate therapies for individual patients—a core element of precision medicine.
Ashley’s team is now looking at how faster genetic sequencing results could help physicians make life-and-death treatment decisions, STAT reported.
“There’s just never been a better time to be doing genomics,” cardiologist Euan Ashley, MD, PhD, Associate Dean of the Stanford University School of Medicine, told STAT. “Now there are lots of choices. If you’re a genome center and you need to do half a million genomes, you’re going to be extremely price-sensitive. If you’re a clinical lab, where you get a few exomes and a few genomes every day, and what really matters to you is the highest possible accuracy for diagnosis, then you’re definitely going to make a different choice,” he added. (Photo copyright: euanangusashley.com.)
Getting Crucial Genetic Information Faster
Ashley believes that if doctors who work with rare and deadly diseases get crucial genetic information faster, they can more precisely determine which surgical procedures are best for their patients during life-or-death situations.
Already, his work is proving highly successful. In a letter his team published in the New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM), the researchers reported 12 cases of sequencing seriously ill patients, five of whom were diagnosed in seven hours and 18 minutes. Every single case resulted in tangible changes in treatments given to the patients.
“We continue to be interested in sequencing genomes faster and more accurately, for a broader range of clinical applications. We’re recruiting from intensive care units similar kinds of patients to the ones we did before, but with every aspect of the pipeline upgraded, which helps both from a speed but also from an accuracy perspective,” he told STAT.
Ashley and his team continue to delve into the patient care aspects, striving to continue to make a big impact. In addition, the group is being sought out by cancer doctors who need faster diagnoses.
“We also have a lot of interest from cancer doctors saying it’s really important to make a cancer diagnosis quickly. And of course, there is no person who’s ever had the specter of cancer hanging over them for a moment that didn’t want some kind of an answer faster. If you can have it in the next minute, you would take it rather than waiting several weeks,” he noted.
As a result, the group has initiated pilot studies “to look at returning results faster in the same way that we were speeding up the intensive care unit with whole genome sequencing,” Ashley told STAT.
Though the work is in the early stages, the team has a few scenarios where access to genetic data changes medical decision making. For instance, when genetic test results showing a positive BRCA variant alter a doctor’s surgical plan.
“We don’t wait for a cardiac enzyme [test] if somebody’s having a heart attack. That comes back within 10 minutes to a few hours from the lab. I don’t see why you should have to wait for a test to tell you if you’re positive for BRCA variant,” he told STAT.
“Another very obvious place is acute leukemia. And there’s a number of actionable conditions where if they can be detected rapidly, then treatment can be started faster,” he added.
Improving Genetic Sequencing Accuracy while Lowering Costs
STAT asked Ashley about a claim that his team could cut their Guinness World Record sequencing time in half.
“It’s easy to throw that number around, harder to deliver on it. But I think we’re definitely on track to knock hours, not minutes, off that record,” he said.
Additionally, the team continues to work on decreasing cost per genome. In just the time since the record was set, there has already been great strides in this area. The market is filled with new companies and the competition has lowered costs.
“It has definitely come down,” Ashely noted. “In fact, by the time we ended up publishing the [NEJM] paper—as opposed to when we first did this calculation—the cost was already lower. And that was actually before the entry of these new companies to the market, which added downward pressure on costs of sequencing,” he added.
Getting Payers to Reimburse for Genetic Sequencing
Even though costs for WGS is dropping, getting health plans to reimburse for genetic testing remains difficult.
“The challenge now is persuading payers to the very obvious fact that this technology makes patients’ lives better and saves them money,” Ashley told STAT. “And that’s the amazing part. There are so many cost-effectiveness studies now for this technology and yet we are still paying people to sit on the phone all day long and debate with insurance companies.
“And in a world where we pay a very large amount of money for therapeutics, these diagnostics can be cost-saving and lifesaving. At some level, it’s hard to understand why it hasn’t been deployed much more readily,” he concluded.
Clinical laboratory leaders, pathologists, and research scientists should continue to monitor the development of rapid genetic sequencing for diagnostic purposes.
—Kristin Althea O’Connor