The research also could lead to a better understanding of how short tandem repeats (STRs)—the number of times a gene is copied into RNA for protein use—affect gene expression as well, according to Stanford.
“We’ve known for a while that short tandem repeats or STRs, aren’t junk because their presence or absence correlates with changes in gene expression. But we haven’t known how they exert these effects,” said study lead Polly Fordyce, PhD (above), Associate Professor of Bioengineering and Genetics at Stanford University, in a news release. The research could lead to new clinical laboratory biomarkers for genetic testing. (Photo copyright: Stanford University.)
“Researchers have spent a lot of time characterizing these transcription factors and figuring out which sequences—called motifs—they like to bind to the most,” said the study lead Polly Fordyce, PhD, Associate Professor of Bioengineering and Genetics at Stanford University, in a Stanford Medicine news release.
“But current models don’t adequately explain where and when transcription factors bind to non-coding DNA to regulate gene expression. Sometimes, no transcription factor is attached to something that looks like a perfect motif. Other times, transcription factors bind to stretches of DNA that aren’t motifs,” the news release explains.
Transcription factors are “like light switches that can turn genes on or off depending on what cells need,” notes a King’s College LondonEDIT Labblog post.
But why do transcription factors target some places in the genome and not others?
“To solve the puzzle of why transcription factors go to some places in the genome and not to others, we needed to look beyond the highly preferred motifs,” Fordyce added. “In this study, we’re showing that the STR sequence around the motif can have a really big effect on transcription factor binding, providing clues as to what these repeated sequences might be doing.”
Such information could aid in understanding certain hereditary conditions and diseases.
“Variations in STR length have been associated with changes in gene expression and implicated in several complex phenotypes such as schizophrenia, cancer, autism, and Crohn’s disease. However, the mechanism by which STRs affect transcription remains unknown,” the researchers wrote in Science.
Special Assays Explore Binding
According to their paper, the research team turned to the Fordyce Lab’s previously developed microfluidic binding assays (MITOMI, k–MITOMI, and STAMMP) to analyze the impact of different DNA sequences on transcription factor binding.
“In the experiment we asked, ‘How do these changes impact the strength of transcription factor binding?’ We saw a surprisingly large effect. Varying the STR sequence around a motif can have a 70-fold impact on the binding,” Fordyce wrote.
“This research unveils, for the first time, the intricate connection between how variants in the non-coding genome affect genes that are associated with blood pressure and with hypertension. What we’ve created is a kind of functional map of the regulators of blood pressure genes, “said Philipp Maass, PhD, Lead Researcher and Assistant Professor Molecular Genetics, University of Toronto, in a news release.
The findings could aid precision medicine for cardiovascular health and may possibly be adopted to other conditions, according to The Hospital for Sick Children.
“The variants we have characterized in the non-coding genome could be used as genomic markers for hypertension, laying the groundwork for future genetic research and potential therapeutic targets for cardiovascular disease,” Maass noted.
Why All the ‘Junk’ DNA?
Clinical laboratory scientists may wonder why genetic research has primarily focused on 20,000 genes within the genome, leaving the “junk” DNA for later investigation. So did researchers at Harvard University.
“After the Human Genome Project, scientists found that there were around 20,000 genes within the genome, a number that some researchers had already predicted. Remarkably, these genes comprise only about 1-2% of the three billion base pairs of DNA. This means that anywhere from 98-99% of our entire genome must be doing something other than coding for proteins,” they wrote in a blog post.
“Imagine being given multiple volumes of encyclopedias that contained a coherent sentence in English every 100 pages, where the rest of the space contained a smattering of uninterpretable random letters and characters. You would probably start to wonder why all those random letters and characters were there in the first place, which is the exact problem that has plagued scientists for decades,” they added.
Not only is junk DNA an interesting study subject, but ongoing research may also produce useful new biomarkers for genetic diagnostics and other clinical laboratory testing. Thus, medical lab professionals may want to keep an eye on new developments involving non-coding DNA.
Clinical laboratories and pathology groups may soon have new assays for diagnosis, treatment identification, patient monitoring
It’s here at last! The human Y chromosome now has a full and complete sequence. This achievement by an international team of genetic researchers is expected to open the door to significant insights in how variants and mutations in the Y chromosome are involved in various diseases and health conditions. In turn, these insights could lead to new diagnostic assays for use by clinical laboratories and pathology groups.
Pathologists and clinical laboratories involved in genetic research will understand the significance of this accomplishment. The full Y chromosome sequence “fills in gaps across more than 50% of the Y chromosome’s length, [and] uncovers important genomic features with implications for fertility, such as factors in sperm production,” SciTechDaily noted.
This breakthrough will make it possible for other research teams to gain further understanding of the functions of the Y chromosome and how specific gene variants and mutations contribute to specific health conditions and diseases. In turn, knowledge of those genetic sequences and mutations would give clinical laboratories the assays that help diagnosis, identify relevant therapies, and monitor a patient’s progress.
“When you find variation that you haven’t seen before, the hope is always that those genomic variants will be important for understanding human health,” said Adam Phillippy, PhD, a senior investigator and head of the Genome Informatics Section at the National Human Genome Research Institute, in a press release. Clinical laboratories and anatomic pathology groups may soon have new assays based on the T2T study findings. (Photo copyright: National Human Genome Research Institute.)
Study Background and Recognition
Revolutionary thinking by the Telomere-to-Telomere (T2T) scientists led to the team’s breakthrough. The researchers “applied new DNA sequencing technologies and sequence assembly methods, as well as knowledge gained from generating the first gapless sequences for the other 23 human chromosomes,” SciTechDaily reported.
In 1977, the first complete genome of an organism was sequenced. Thus began the commencement of sequencing technology research. Twenty years ago the first human genome sequence was completed. The result was thanks to years of work through the preferred “chain termination” (aka, Sanger Sequencing) method developed by Fred Sanger and a $2.7 billion contribution from the Human Genome Project, according to a study published in the African Journal of Laboratory Medicine (AJLM).
By 2005, a new era in genomic sequencing emerged. Scientists now employed a technique called pyrosequencing and the change had great benefits. “Massively parallel or next-generation sequencing (NGS) technologies eliminated the need for multiple personnel working on a genome by automating DNA cleavage, amplification, and parallel short-read sequencing on a single instrument, thereby lowering costs and increasing throughput,” the AJLM paper noted.
The new technique brought great results. “Next-generation sequencing technologies have made sequencing much easier, faster and cheaper than Sanger sequencing,” the AJLM study authors noted.
The changes allowed more sequencing to be completed. Nevertheless, more than half of the Y chromosome sequence was still unknown until the new findings from the T2T study, SciTechDaily reported.
Why the TDT Breakthrough Is So Important
“The biggest surprise was how organized the repeats are,” said Adam Phillippy, PhD, a senior investigator and head of the NHGRI. “We didn’t know what exactly made up the missing sequence. It could have been very chaotic, but instead, nearly half of the chromosome is made of alternating blocks of two specific repeating sequences known as satellite DNA. It makes a beautiful, quilt-like pattern.”
Much can be gained in knowing more about the Y chromosome. Along with the X chromosome, it is significant in sexual development. Additionally, current research is showing that genes on the Y chromosome are linked to the risk and severity of cancer.
Might What Comes Next Give Clinical Labs New Diagnostic Tools?
The variety of new regions of the Y chromosome that the T2T team discovered bring into focus several areas of new genetic research. For instance, the “azoospermia factor region, a stretch of DNA containing several genes known to be involved in sperm production” was uncovered, and “with the newly completed sequence, the researchers studied the structure of a set of inverted repeats or palindromes in the azoospermia factor region,” SciTechDaily reported.
“This structure is very important because occasionally these palindromes can create loops of DNA. Sometimes, these loops accidentally get cut off and create deletions in the genome,” said Arang Rhie, PhD, a staff scientist at NHGRI and first author of the Nature study.
Missing regions would challenge the production of sperm, impacting fertility, so being able to finally see a complete sequence will help research in this area.
Scientists are only just beginning to recognize the value of this breakthrough to future genetic research and development. As genetic sequencing costs continue to drop, the T2T research findings could mean new treatment options for pathologists and diagnostic assays for clinical laboratories are just around the corner.
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.
“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.
“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.
Clinical laboratories and pathology groups can benefit from knowing how genetic testing is being used for other than medical testing purposes
It is useful for pathologists and clinical laboratory managers to be aware of the different ways genetic testing and DNA sequencing is being conducted. That’s because a genetic test for one purpose—such as identifying an individual’s relatives and connection to a region or a cultural group—might generate data that could become part of that person’s medical care.
Thus, an ongoing genetic study in South Africa highlighting the issue of so-called “helicopter research” will be informative for Dark Daily’s readers.
Also known as “neo-colonial science,” helicopter research describes when scientists from wealthy countries perform research in lower-income countries in ways that may be deemed exploitative or disrespectful to local populations.
“Scientists conduct helicopter research when they collect data from developing countries and marginalized communities with little to no involvement from local researchers and community members,” wrote researchers Dana Al-Hindi, and Brenna Henn PhD, in an article for The Conversation. “Helicopter research also occurs when researchers take data out of the country they collected it from without either providing benefit to or sharing the results with the community.”
In an article for The Conversation, UC Davis researchers Brenna Henn, PhD (left), and Dana Al-Hindi (right), wrote, “While we have learned a great deal from these communities, we have been unable to fulfill a common request: providing them their individual genetic ancestry result. In our attempts to overcome the logistical challenges of providing this information, we’ve grappled with the common question of how to ensure an equitable balance of benefits between researchers and the community they study. What we’ve found is that there is no easy answer.” Clinical laboratories will want to remember the term “Helicopter Research” in relation to these types of studies. (Photos copyright: UC Davis/The Conversation.)
The South Africa study, conducted over the past 12 years, aims to use genetic data “to help unravel the history and prehistory of southern Africans and their relationship to populations around the world,” the authors wrote in The Conversation.
The researchers have been using the genetic data to trace the ancestry of indigenous Khoekhoe and San peoples in South Africa as well as other populations that self-identify as “Colored.”
“Early European colonizers initially used this term to refer to indigenous Khoekhoe and San groups long before it was codified by the apartheid government in 1948,” the researchers wrote. “It persists today as an ethnic category, broadly encompassing Khoe-San groups, various East African, Indian, and Southeast Asian populations brought by the slave trade, and people of mixed ancestry.”
Challenges Sharing Genetic Data with Study Participants
Participants in the study have asked to see their personal genetic ancestry results, but the researchers noted several challenges, including local restrictions and the difficulty of presenting complex data in “an accessible and digestible form.” So, the researchers partnered with consumer-focused genetic testing company 23andMe (NASDAQ:ME).
23andMe provided additional funding for the research, assisted the researchers in community outreach, and “expanded our ability to ‘capacity-build’—that is, to make sure that the knowledge and skills we gain are shared with local institutions,” Henn and Al-Hindi wrote in The Conversation. They added that they are still dealing with questions about whether their efforts to provide equitable benefits are sufficient.
“Our research team, local collaborators, and 23andMe are all concerned about how to best address the risk of helicopter research, coercion, and any unknown risks that may arise from disclosing personal ancestry results,” they wrote.
Cape Town Statement on Fostering Research Integrity
The issue of helicopter research was a major focus at the 7th World Conference on Research Integrity (WCRI), held May 29-June 1 in Cape Town, South Africa. It was the first WCRI to be held in Africa and adopted the theme “Fostering Research Integrity in an Unequal World.”
One outcome of the conference will be an effort to produce what is known as the Cape Town Statement on Fostering Research Integrity. The statement will “highlight the importance of fairness in international research partnerships,” noted Research Professional News.
The statement “compels institutions and researchers alike to act on their responsibilities to promote equity, diversity, and fairness in research partnerships,” conference speaker Retha Visagie, DCur, told the publication. She leads the Research Integrity Office at the University of South Africa.
Conference co-chair Lyn Horn, PhD, director the Office of Research Integrity at the University of Cape Town, told the publication that it could take up to a year before a draft of the statement is ready for comment.
One overarching goal will be to “demonstrate why inequity and unfair practices in research collaborations and contexts is a research integrity (RI) matter,” the authors wrote. “Second it must identify some key values or principles and action guides that will address the issue of equity and fairness in research within the context of the complete research life cycle from research agenda setting and call to proposal development, through grant application, allocation and management of funding, data production, analysis, management and sharing, to outputs, translation, and evaluation.”
Another conference speaker, Francis Kombe PhD, told attendees the statement will offer guidance specifically to institutions such as universities, journals, and funding organizations, the journal Science reported. That stands in contrast to earlier statements on helicopter research, which were geared more toward individuals and small groups.
How any of this will impact clinical laboratories and pathology groups remains unclear. Nevertheless, it is worthwhile knowing how gene sequencing is being used by researchers for purposes other than to guide diagnoses and treatment of patients.
Researchers surprised that process designed to detect SARS-CoV-2 also identifies monkeypox in wastewater
Early information about an outbreak in a geographical region can inform local clinical laboratories as to which infectious agents and variants they are likely to see when testing patients who have symptoms. To that end, wastewater testing has become a rich source of early clues as to where COVID-19 outbreaks are spreading and how new variants of the coronavirus are emerging.
Ongoing advances in genetic sequencing and digital technologies are making it feasible to test wastewater for infectious agents in ways that were once too time-consuming, too expensive, or simply impossible.
“Before wastewater sequencing, the only way to do this was through clinical testing, which is not feasible at large scale, especially in areas with limited resources, public participation, or the capacity to do sufficient testing and sequencing,” said Knight in a UCSD press release. “We’ve shown that wastewater sequencing can successfully track regional infection dynamics with fewer limitations and biases than clinical testing to the benefit of almost any community.” (Photo copyright: UC San Diego News.)
Same Process, Different Virus
Following August’s declaration of a state of emergency by California, San Diego County, and the federal government, UCSD researchers added monkeypox surveillance to UCSD’s existing wastewater surveillance program.
“It’s the same process as SARS-CoV-2 qPCR monitoring, except that we have been testing for a different virus. Monkeypox is a DNA virus, so it is a bit of a surprise that our process optimized for SARS-CoV-2, which is an RNA virus, works so well,” said Rob Knight, PhD, Professor of Pediatrics and Computer Science and Engineering at UCSD and one of the lead authors of the study in the press release.
According to the press release, RNA sequencing from wastewater has two specific benefits:
It avoids the potential of clinical testing biases, and
It can track changes in the prevalence of SARS-CoV-2 variants over time.
In 2020, at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, scientists from the University of California San Diego and Scripps Research looked into genetic sequencing of wastewater. They wanted to see if it would provide insights into levels and variants of the SARS-CoV-2 within a specific community.
Individuals who have COVID-19 shed the virus in their stool.
The UCSD/Scripps researchers deployed commercial auto-sampling robots to collect wastewater samples at the main UCSD campus. They analyzed the samples for levels of SARS-CoV-2 RNA at the Expedited COVID-19 Identification Environment (EXCITE) lab at UCSD. After the success of the program on the campus, they extended their research to include other facilities and communities in the San Diego area.
Detecting Pathogens Weeks Earlier than Traditional Clinical Laboratory Testing
In July, the scientists successfully determined the genetic mixture of SARS-CoV-2 variants present in wastewater samples by examining just two teaspoons of raw sewage. They found they could accurately identify new variants 14 days before traditional clinical laboratory testing. They detected the presence of the Omicron variant 11 days before it was first reported clinically in the community.
During the study, the team collected and analyzed 21,383 sewage samples, with most of those samples (19,944) being taken from the UCSD campus. They performed genomic sequencing on 600 of the samples and compared them to genomes obtained from clinical swabs. They also compared 31,149 genomes from clinical genomic surveillance to 837 wastewater samples taken from the community.
The scientists distinguished specific viral lineages present in the samples by sequencing the viruses’ complete set of genetic instructions. Mutational differences between the various SARS-CoV-2 variants can be minute and subtle, but also have notable biological deviations.
“Nothing like this had been done before. Sampling and detection efforts began modestly but grew steadily with increased research capacity and experience. Currently, we’re monitoring almost 350 buildings on campus,” said UCSD’s Chancellor Pradeep Khosla, PhD, in the July press release.
“The wastewater program was an essential element of UC San Diego Health’s response to the COVID pandemic,” said Robert Schooley, MD, Infectious Disease Specialist at UC San Diego Health, in the press release. Schooley is also a professor at UCSD School of Medicine, and one of the authors of the study.
“It provided us with real-time intelligence about locations on campus where virus activity was ongoing,” he added. “Wastewater sampling essentially allowed us to ‘swab the noses’ of every person upstream from the collector every day and to use that information to concentrate viral detection efforts at the individual level.”
Monkeypox Added to UCSD Wastewater Surveillance
In August, UCSD officially added the surveillance of the monkeypox virus to their ongoing wastewater surveillance program. A month earlier, the researchers had discerned 10,565.54 viral copies per liter of wastewater. They observed the levels fluctuating and increasing.
On August 2, the scientists detected 189,309.81 viral copies per liter of wastewater. However, it is not yet clear if the monitoring of monkeypox viral loads in wastewater will enable the researchers to accurately predict future infections or case rates.
“We don’t yet know if the data will anticipate case surges like with COVID,” Knight said in the August UCSD press release announcing the addition of monkeypox to the surveillance program. “It depends on when the virus is shed from the body relative to how bad the symptoms are that cause people to seek care. This is, in principle, different for each virus, although in practice wastewater seems to be predictive for multiple viruses.”
Utilization of genetic sequencing of wastewater sampling will continue to develop and improve. “It’s fairly easy to add new pathogens to the process,” said Smruthi Karthikeyan, PhD, an environmental engineer and postdoctoral researcher in Knight’s lab who has overseen wastewater monitoring at UC San Diego. “It’s doable on short notice. We can get more information in the same turnaround time.”
Thus, clinical laboratories engaged in testing programs for COVID-19 may soon see the addition of monkeypox to those processes.