The KRAS gene is associated with colorectal cancer. The researchers named their development the Cellular Assay for Targeted CRISPR-discriminated Horizontal gene transfer (CATCH).
CATCH successfully detected cancer in the colons of mice. The researchers believe it could be used to diagnose cancers, as well as infections and other diseases, in humans as well, according to a UCSD news release.
“If bacteria can take up DNA, and cancer is defined genetically by a change in its DNA, then, theoretically, bacteria could be engineered to detect cancer,” gastroenterologist Daniel Worthley, PhD, a cancer researcher at Colonoscopy Clinic in Brisbane, Australia, told MedicalResearch.com. This research could eventually provide clinical laboratories and anatomic pathologists with new tools to use in diagnosing certain types of cancer. (Photo copyright: Colonoscopy Clinic.)
Tapping Bacteria’s Natural Competence
In their Science paper, the researchers acknowledged other synthetic biology achievements in cellular biosensors aimed at human disease. But they noted that more can be done by leveraging the “natural competence” skill of bacteria.
“Biosensors have not yet been engineered to detect specific extracellular DNA sequences and mutations. Here, we engineered naturally competent Acinetobacter baylyi (A. baylyi) to detect donor DNA from the genomes of colorectal cancer cells, organoids, and tumors,” they wrote.
“Many bacteria can take up DNA from their environment, a skill known as natural competence,” said Rob Cooper, PhD, co-first author of the study and a scientist at US San Diego’s Synthetic Biology Institute, in the news release. A. baylyi is a type of bacteria renowned for success in doing just that, the NCI article pointed out.
“We observed horizontal gene transfer from the tumor to the sensor bacteria in our mouse model of colorectal cancer. This cellular assay for targeted, CRISPR-discriminated horizontal gene transfer (CATCH) enables the biodetection of specific cell-free DNA,” the authors wrote in Science.
“Colorectal cancer seemed a logical proof of concept as the colorectal lumen is full of microbes and, in the setting of cancer, full of tumor DNA,” gastroenterologist Daniel Worthley, PhD, a cancer researcher at Colonoscopy Clinic in Brisbane, Australia, told MedicalResearch.com.
Finding More Cancers and Treatment
More research is needed before CATCH is used in clinical settings. The scientists are reportedly planning on adapting CATCH to multiple bacteria that can locate other cancers and infections.
“The most exciting aspect of cellular healthcare … is not in the mere detection of disease. A laboratory can do that,” wrote Worthley in The Conversation. “But what a laboratory cannot do is pair the detection of disease (a diagnosis) with the cells actually responding to the disease [and] with appropriate treatment.
“This means biosensors can be programmed so that a disease signal—in this case, a specific sequence of cell-free DNA—could trigger a specific biological therapy, directly at the spot where the disease is detected in real time,” he added.
Clinical laboratory scientists, pathologists, and microbiologists may want to stay abreast of how the team adapts CATCH, and how bacterial biosensors in general continue to develop to aid diagnosis of diseases and improve ways to target treatment.
Expanded genomic dataset includes a wider racial diversity which may lead to improved diagnostics and clinical laboratory tests
Human genomic research has taken another important step forward. The National Institutes of Health’s All of Us research program has reached a milestone of 250,000 collected whole genome sequences. This accomplishment could escalate research and development of new diagnostics and therapeutic biomarkers for clinical laboratory tests and prescription drugs.
The NIH’s All of Us program “has significantly expanded its data to now include nearly a quarter million whole genome sequences for broad research use. About 45% of the data was donated by people who self-identify with a racial or ethnic group that has been historically underrepresented in medical research,” the news release noted.
“For years, the lack of diversity in genomic datasets has limited our understanding of human health,” said Andrea Ramirez, MD, Chief Data Officer, All of Us Research Program, in the news release. Clinical laboratories performing genetic testing may look forward to new biomarkers and diagnostics due to the NIH’s newly expanded gene sequencing data set. (Photo copyright: Vanderbilt University.)
Diverse Genomic Data is NIH’s Goal
NIH launched the All of Us genomic sequencing program in 2018. Its aim is to involve more than one million people from across the country and reflect national diversity in its database.
So far, the program has grown to include 413,450 individuals, with 45% of participants self-identifying “with a racial or ethnic group that has been historically under-represented in medical research,” NIH said.
“By engaging participants from diverse backgrounds and sharing a more complete picture of their lives—through genomic, lifestyle, clinical, and social environmental data—All of Us enables researchers to begin to better pinpoint the drivers of disease,” said Andrea Ramirez, MD, Chief Data Officer of the All of Us research program, in the news release.
More than 5,000 researchers are currently registered to use NIH’s All of Us genomic database. The vast resource contains the following data:
245,350 whole genome sequences, which includes “variation at more than one billion locations, about one-third of the entire human genome.”
1,000 long-read genome sequences to enable “a more complete understanding of the human genome.”
“Through a partnership with participants, researchers, and diverse communities across the country, we are seeing incredible progress towards powering scientific discoveries that can lead to a healthier future for all of us,” said Josh Denny, MD, Chief Executive Officer, All of Us Research Program, in the news release.
“[Researchers] can get access to the tools and the data they need to conduct a project with our resources in as little as two hours once their institutional data use agreement is signed,” said Fornessa Randal, Executive Director, Center for Asian Health Equity, University of Chicago, in a YouTube video about Researcher Workbench.
This is good news for clinical laboratories that already perform medical testing for telehealth providers and an opportunity for medical labs that do not, it is an opportunity to do so
Telemedicine visits have become commonplace since the arrival of COVID-19. Before the pandemic, telehealth was primarily used to give remote patients access to quality healthcare providers. But three years later both patients and physicians are becoming increasingly comfortable with virtual office visits, especially among Millennial and Gen Z patients and doctors.
Now, a recent study by the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania (Penn Medicine) suggests that there could be a significant financial advantage for hospitals that conduct telemedicine. This would be a boon to clinical laboratories that perform medical testing for telemedicine providers.
According to Digital Health News, in July 2017 Penn Medicine launched a 24/7/365 copayment-free telemedicine program for its employees called Penn Medicine OnDemand. To engage with a telemedicine provider, patients must have a smartphone or tablet with a front-facing camera and updated operating system.
Telemedicine Visits Cost Less than In-Office Doctor Appointments
An analysis of the OnDemand program’s data collected from its inception through the end of 2019 found that the telemedicine appointment per-visit cost averaged around $380, whereas the cost of an in-person visit at an emergency department, primary care office, or urgent care clinic averaged around $493.
Typically, Penn Medicine’s employees used the telemedicine program for common, low risk health complaints. Healthcare conditions that many patients might otherwise not seek treatment for if an in-office visit was inconvenient.
“The data we analyzed pre-date the pandemic. It was a time when people were just putting a toe in the water and wondering, ‘Let me see if telemedicine could treat my needs,’” Krisda Chaiyachati MD, an internal medicine physician and Adjunct Assistant Professor at Penn Medicine, told Digital Health News. Chaiyachati lead the research team that conducted the telemedicine study.
“These days, people seem willing to jump in for an appropriate set of conditions,” he added. “The good news is that we made care easier while saving money, and we think the savings could be higher in the future.”
Chaiyachati and his colleagues found that telemedicine can save employers healthcare costs without sacrificing quality of care.
“The conditions most often handled by OnDemand are low acuity—non-urgent or semi-urgent issues like respiratory infections, sinus infections, and allergies—but incredibly common, so any kind of cost reduction can make a huge difference for controlling employee benefit costs,” Krisda Chaiyachati MD (above), a Penn Medicine physician and the study’s lead researcher, told Digital Health News. Clinical laboratories that already perform testing for telemedicine providers may see an increase in test orders once hospitals learn of the costs savings highlighted in the Penn Medicine study. (Photo copyright: Penn Medicine.)
Telemedicine on the Rise
The idea is not new. In late 2018, Planned Parenthood launched the Planned Parenthood Direct mobile app in New York State. The app provides New York patients with access to birth control, emergency contraception, and UTI treatment with no in-person visit required.
The program has since expanded across the country. Users of the app can connect with a physician to go over symptoms/needs, and the be sent a prescription within a business day to the pharmacy of their choice.
The concept is similar to Penn Medicine OnDemand, which gives patients 24/7 year around access to treatment for common and low-acuity medical issues in a convenient, virtual process.
Telemedicine was on the rise in other parts of the healthcare industry before the pandemic. According to “The State of Telehealth Before and After the COVID-19 Pandemic” published by Julia Shaver, MD, Kaiser Permanente, in the journal Primary Care: Clinics in Office Practice, 76% of US hospital systems had utilized some form of telemedicine by 2018. This rate grew exponentially while the healthcare system had to navigate a world with COVID-19 on the rise.
And, apparently, quality of care does not suffer when moved from in-person to virtual settings. Two studies conducted by The University of Rochester Medical Center (URMC) found telemedicine to be effective and that “common concerns about telemedicine don’t hold up to scrutiny,” according a news release.
In her New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM) paper on the studies, Kathleen Fear, PhD, URMC’s Director of Data Analytics, Health Lab, and her co-authors, wrote: “Three beliefs—that telemedicine will reduce access for the most vulnerable patients; that reimbursement parity will encourage overuse of telemedicine; and that telemedicine is an ineffective way to care for patients—have for years formed the backbone of opposition to the widespread adoption of telemedicine.”
However, URMC’s study found the opposite to be true. The NEJM authors wrote, “there is no support for these three common notions about telemedicine. At URMC, the most vulnerable patients had the highest uptake of telemedicine; not only did they complete a disproportionate share of telemedicine visits, but they also did so with lower no-show and cancellation rates. It is clear that … telemedicine makes medical care more accessible to patients who previously have experienced substantial barriers to care.
“Importantly, this access does not come at the expense of effectiveness. Providers do not order excessive amounts of additional testing to make up for the limitations of virtual visits. Patients do not end up in the ER or the hospital because their needs are not met during a telemedicine visit, and they also do not end up requiring additional in-person follow-up visits to supplement their telemedicine visit,” the NEJM authors concluded.
“Not only did our most vulnerable patients not get left behind—they were among those engaging the most with, and benefiting the most from, telemedicine services. We did not see worse outcomes or increased costs, or patients needing an increased amount of in-person follow up. Nor did we find evidence of overuse. This is good care, and it is equitable care for vulnerable populations,” Fear said in the news release.
“For patients, the message is clear and reassuring: Telemedicine is an effective and efficient way of receiving many kinds of healthcare,” she added.
Opportunities for Clinical Laboratories
Dark Daily has covered the fast growing world of telemedicine in many ebriefs over the years.
As telemedicine broadens its reach across the healthcare world, clinical laboratories and pathology groups would be wise to seek collaboration with health plans and providers of telemedicine to figure out where sample collection and testing fits into this new virtual healthcare space.
This is another approach to the liquid biopsy that clinical laboratories and pathologists may use to detect cancer less invasively
Screening for cancer usually involves invasive, often painful, costly biopsies to provide samples for diagnostic clinical laboratory testing. But now, scientists at the University of Technology (UTS) in Sydney, Australia, have developed a novel approach to identifying tumorous cells in the bloodstream that uses imaging to cause cells with elevated lactase to fluoresce, according to a UTS news release.
The UTS researchers created a Static Droplet Microfluidic (SDM) device that detects circulating tumor cells (CTC) that have separated from the cancer source and entered the bloodstream. The isolation of CTCs is an intrinsic principle behind liquid biopsies, and microfluidic gadgets can improve the efficiency in which problematic cells are captured.
The University of Technology’s new SDM device could lead the way for very early detection of cancers and help medical professionals monitor and treat cancers.
“Managing cancer through the assessment of tumor cells in blood samples is far less invasive than taking tissue biopsies. It allows doctors to do repeat tests and monitor a patient’s response to treatment,” explained Majid E. Warkiani, PhD, Professor, School of Biomedical Engineering, UTS, and one of the authors of the study, in a news release. Clinical laboratories and pathologists may soon have a new liquid biopsy approach to detecting cancers. (Photo copyright: University of New South Wales.)
Precision Medicine a Goal of UTS Research
The University of Technology’s new SDM device differentiates tumor cells from normal cells using a unique metabolic signature of cancer that involves the waste product lactate.
“A single tumor cell can exist among billions of blood cells in just one milliliter of blood, making it very difficult to find,” explained Majid E. Warkiani, PhD, a professor in the School of Biomedical Engineering at UTS and one of the authors of the study, in the news release.
“The new [SDM] detection technology has 38,400 chambers capable of isolating and classifying the number of metabolically active tumor cells,” he added.
“In the 1920s, Otto Warburg discovered that cancer cells consume a lot of glucose and so produce more lactate. Our device monitors single cells for increased lactate using pH sensitive fluorescent dyes that detect acidification around cells,” Warkiani noted.
After the SDM device has detected the presence of questionable cells, those cells undergo further genetic testing and molecular analysis to determine the source of the cancer. Because circulating tumor cells are a precursor of metastasis, the device’s ability to identify CTCs in very small quantities can aid in the diagnosis and classification of the cancer and the establishment of personalized treatment plans, a key goal of precision medicine.
The new technology was also designed to be operated easily by medical personnel without the need for high-end equipment and tedious, lengthy training sessions. This feature should allow for easier integration into medical research, clinical laboratory diagnostics, and enable physicians to monitor cancer patients in a functional and inexpensive manner, according to the published study.
“Managing cancer through the assessment of tumor cells in blood samples is far less invasive than taking tissue biopsies. It allows doctors to do repeat tests and monitor a patient’s response to treatment,” stated Warkiani in the press release.
The team have filed for a provisional patent for the device and plan on releasing it commercially in the future.
Other Breakthroughs in MCED Testing
Scientists around the world have been working to develop a simple blood test for diagnosing cancer and creating optimal treatment protocols for a long time. There have been some notable breakthroughs in the advancement of multi-cancer early detection (MCED) tests, which Dark Daily has covered in prior ebriefings.
Cancer is a force in Australia as well. It’s estimated that 151,000 Australians were diagnosed with cancer in 2021, and that nearly one in two Australians will receive a diagnosis of the illness by the age of 85, according to Cancer Council South Australia.
The population of Australia in 2021 was 25.69 million, compared to the US in the same year at 331.9 million.
The development of the University of Technology’s static droplet microfluidic device is another approach in the use of liquid biopsies as a means to detect cancer less invasively.
More research and clinical studies are needed before the device can be ready for clinical use by anatomic pathology groups and medical laboratories, but its creation may lead to faster diagnosis of cancers, especially in the early stages, which could lead to improved patient outcomes.
Demand for low cost, convenient access to doctors and drugs is driving transformation to decentralized medical care, and retail pharmacy chains see opportunity in offering primary care services
Retail pharmacies and pharmacists continue to play a growing role in healthcare as consumer demand for lower cost and convenience pushes the nation’s medical landscape away from centralized healthcare systems. Clinical laboratories have seen this in the increasing trend of consumers seeking vaccinations and home-health tests at their local drug stores.
Results of a pair of surveys dubbed “Pharmacy Next” conducted by Wolters Kluwer Health revealed that 58% of people are now willing to be treated for non-emergency healthcare conditions in non-traditional medical environments, such as retail pharmacies and clinics.
This is a finding that clinical laboratory managers and pathologists should incorporate into their labs’ strategic planning. It portends a shift in care away from the traditional primary care clinic—typically located in the campus around the community hospital—and toward retail pharmacies. Labs will want to capture the test referrals originating from the primary care clinics located in retail pharmacies.
This willingness to access medical care in non-traditional environments is especially true among people in Generation Y (Millennials) and Generation Z (Zoomers)—people born between 1981-1996 (Gen Y) and 1997-2012 (Gen Z), according to Journey Matters.
“As we saw in last year’s survey, primary care decentralization is continuing—the traditional one doctor-one patient, single point of coordination is vanishing, and this is especially evident in younger generations,” said Peter Bonis, MD, Wolters Kluwer’s Chief Medical Officer, in a press release.
The online surveys of more than 2,000 US adults was weighted by age, gender, household income, and education to be representative of the entire population of the United States.
“By preparing for this shift today, providers can work in concert across care sites to deliver the best care to patients,” said Peter Bonis, MD, Wolters Kluwer Health Chief Medical Officer, in a press release. “Likewise, newer care delivery models, like retail pharmacies and clinics, can ensure they’re ready to meet the expectations of healthcare consumers, who will increasingly be turning to them for a growing range of care needs.” Clinical laboratories may find new revenue opportunities working with the primary care clinics operating within local retail pharmacists and clinicians. (Photo copyright: Wolters Kluwer.)
Key Findings of the Wolters Kluwer Pharmacy Next Studies
Some key insights of the surveys include:
Care is rapidly decentralizing with 58% stating they are likely to visit a local pharmacy for non-emergency medical care.
Younger generations are signaling lasting change within the industry as they are more open to non-traditional styles of care.
61% of respondents envision most primary care services being provided at pharmacies, retail clinics, or pharmacy clinics within the next five years. Of the respondents, 70% of Millennials, 66% of Gen Z, 65% of Gen X, and 43% of Baby Boomers believe this transition will occur.
Consumers are worried about prescription costs and availability.
92% of respondents said physicians and pharmacists should inform patients of generic options.
59% of surveyed consumers have concerns about drug tampering and theft when it involves mail order or subscription prescription services.
One in three respondents believe convenience is more important than credentials in non-emergency situations.
The survey indicates that healthcare consumers across multiple generations are open to a shift in some medical services from doctors to pharmacists. However, there were some notable differences between generations.
Respondents of the Baby Boomer (55%) and Gen X (57%) generations stated they would trust a physician assistant with medication prescriptions, while only 42% of Gen Z and 47% of Millennial respondents felt the same way.
Additionally, Boomers (57%) and Gen X (67%) said they would feel comfortable with a nurse practitioner issuing their prescriptions, while only 44% of Gen Z and 53% of Millennials said they would.
Increased Comfort with Genetic Testing at Pharmacies
Overall, 68% of individuals polled believe their individual genomic data could guide prescription decisions, with Millennials (77%) and Gen Z (74%) being the primary believers. Additionally, 88% of respondents stated they see an incentive for health insurers to cover genomic testing, and 72% said they would be open to genetic testing for personalized medical care.
But pharmacists and clinicians should be aware that advancing pharmacogenomics will require addressing privacy concerns. According to the Wolters Kluwer study, 57% of Gen Z and 53% of Millennials have apprehension surrounding genetic testing due to privacy risks, with 35% of Gen X and Boomers holding that same opinion.
Healthcare Staff Shortages, Drug Cost a Concern
Survey respondents are also concerned about pharmacy staff shortages and expenditures when seeking care at a pharmacy. Half of the participants are worried they will receive the wrong medication, half worry about getting the incorrect dosage, and almost half (47%) fear receiving the wrong directions due to overburdened pharmacy employees.
More people in Gen Z (59%) and Millennials (60%) had these concerns compared to Gen X (44%) and Boomers (38%).
Sadly, a distressing 44% of those surveyed admitted to not filling a prescription due to the costs. That number jumps to a staggering 56% among individuals with no health insurance, compared to 42% for insured patients.
“From hospitals to doctors’ offices, from pharmacies to pharma and beyond, healthcare must move to more affordable and accessible primary care models, adopt innovations that help deliver more personalized care, and address persistent safety and cost concerns that consumers have about their medications,” said Bonis in the press release.
Can Pharmacies Deliver Primary Care as Well as Doctor’s Offices?
Pharmacies may be logical setting for at least some non-emergency health services. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), approximately 90% of the US population live within five miles of a pharmacy and about 72% of visits to physician’s offices involve the prescribing and monitoring of medication therapies.
“We’re not talking about complicated services. We’re talking low-acuity, very basic care,” said Anita Patel, PharmD, Vice President of Pharmacy Services Development for Walgreens, at the HIMSS conference.
Pharmacies across the country continue to add more healthcare services to their available public offerings. This trend will likely persist into the future as healthcare becomes more expensive, wait times for physician appointments increases, and medical staff shortages rise. Thus, there may be opportunities for clinical laboratories to support pharmacists and doctors working in retail settings.
Meet ‘PECOTEX,’ a newly-invented cotton thread with up to 10 sensors that is washable. Its developers hope it can help doctors diagnosis disease and enable patients to monitor their health conditions
Wearable biosensors continue to be an exciting area of research and product development. The latest development in wearable biosensors comes from a team of scientists led by Imperial College London. This team created a conductive cotton thread that can be woven onto T-shirts, textiles, and face masks and used to monitor key biosignatures like heart rate, respiratory rate, and ammonia levels.
Clinical laboratory managers and pathologists should also take note that this wearable technology also can be used to diagnose and track diseases and improve the monitoring of sleep, exercise, and stress, according to an Imperial College London news release.
Should this technology make it into daily use, it might be an opportunity for clinical laboratories to collect diagnostic and health-monitoring data to add to the patient’s full record of lab test results. In turn, clinical pathologists could use that data to add value when consulting with referring physicians and their patients.
“Our research opens up exciting possibilities for wearable sensors in everyday clothing,” said Firat Güder, PhD, Principal Investigator and Chief Engineer at Güder Research Group at Imperial College London, in a news release. “By monitoring breathing, heart rate, and gases, they can already be seamlessly integrated, and might even be able to help diagnose and monitor treatments of disease in the future.” (Photo copyright: Wikipedia.)
Ushering in New Generation of Wearable Health Sensors
The researchers dubbed their new sensor thread PECOTEX. It’s a polystyrene sulfonate-modified cotton conductive thread that can incorporate more than 10 sensors into cloth surfaces, costs a mere 15 cents/meter (slightly over 39 inches), and is machine washable.
“PECOTEX is high-performing, strong, and adaptable to different needs,” stated Firat Güder, PhD, Principal Investigator and Chief Engineer at Güder Research Group, Imperial College London, in the press release.
“It’s readily scalable, meaning we can produce large volumes inexpensively using both domestic and industrial computerized embroidery machines,” he added.
The material is less breakable and more conductive than conventional conductive threads, which allows for more layers to be embroidered on top of each other to develop more complex sensors. The embroidered sensors retain the intrinsic values of the cloth items, such as wearability, breathability, and the feel on the skin. PECOTEX is also compatible with computerized embroidery machines used in the textile industry.
The researchers embroidered the sensors into T-shirts to track heart activity, into a face mask to monitor breathing, and into other textiles to monitor gases in the body like ammonia which could help detect issues with liver and kidney function, according to the news release.
“The flexible medium of clothing means our sensors have a wide range of applications,” said Fahad Alshabouna, a PhD candidate at Imperial College’s Department of Bioengineering and lead author of the study in the news release. “They’re also relatively easy to produce which means we could scale up manufacturing and usher in a new generation of wearables in clothing.”
Uses for PECOTEX Outside of Healthcare
The team plans on exploring new applications for PECOTEX, such as energy storage, energy harvesting, and biochemical testing for personalized medicine. They are also seeking partners for commercialization of the product.
“We demonstrated applications in monitoring cardiac activity and breathing, and sensing gases,” Fahad added. “Future potential applications include diagnosing and monitoring disease and treatment, monitoring the body during exercise, sleep, and stress, and use in batteries, heaters, and anti-static clothing.”
Wearable healthcare devices have enormous potential to perform monitoring for diagnostic, therapeutic, and rehabilitation purposes and support precision medicine.
Further studies and clinical trials need to occur before PECOTEX will be ready for mass consumer use. Nevertheless, it could lead to new categories of inexpensive, wearable sensors that can be integrated into everyday clothes to provide data about an individual’s health and wellbeing.
If this technology makes it to clinical use, it could provide an opportunity for clinical laboratories to collect diagnostic data for patient records and help healthcare professionals track their patients’ medical conditions.