Orchid Health Announces Release of First Commercially-Available Whole Genome Sequencing Service for Certain Diseases in Preimplantation Embryos
Clinical laboratory managers should note that this company’s new diagnostic offering involving screening embryos for specific genetic conditions is not without controversy
Is the world ready for whole genome sequencing (WGS) of preimplantation embryos to help couples undergoing in vitro fertilization (IVF) treatments know if their embryos have potential genetic health problems? Orchid Health, a clinical preimplantation genetic testing (PGT) laboratory that conducts genetic screening in San Francisco, believes the answer is yes! But the cost is high, and the process is not without controversy.
According to an article in Science, Orchid’s service—a sequencings of the whole human genome of preimplantation embryos at $2,500 per embryo tested—“will look not just for single-gene mutations that cause disorders such as cystic fibrosis, but also more extensively for medleys of common and rare gene variants known to predispose people to neurodevelopmental disorders, severe obesity, and certain psychiatric conditions such as schizophrenia.”
However, Science also noted that some genomics researchers “claim the company inappropriately uses their data to generate some of its risk estimates,” adding that the “Psychiatric Genomics Consortium (PGC), an international group of more than 800 researchers working to decode the genetic and molecular underpinnings of mental health conditions, says Orchid’s new test relies on data [PGC] produced over the past decade, and that the company has violated restrictions against the data’s use for embryo screening.”
There are some who assert that a whole genome sequence of an embryo—given today’s state of genetic technology and knowledge—could generate information that cannot be interpreted accurately in ways that help parents and doctors make informed prenatal testing decisions. At the same time, criticisms expressed by the PGC raise reasonable points.
Perhaps this is a sign of the times. Orchid Health is the latest genetic testing company that is looking to get ahead of genetic testing competitors with its diagnostics offerings. Meanwhile, knowledgeable and credible experts question the appropriateness of this testing, given the genetic knowledge that exists today.
“This is a major advance in the amount of information parents can have,” Orchid’s founder and CEO Noor Siddiqui (above) told CNBC. “The way that you can use that information is really up to you, but it gives a lot more control and confidence into a process that, for all of history, has just been totally left to chance.” Should Orchid Health’s analysis prove useful, pediatricians could order further clinical laboratory prenatal testing to confirm and diagnose potential genetic diseases for parents. (Photo copyright: General Assembly.)
Orchid Receives World-class Support
Regardless of the pushback from some genetic researchers, Orchid has attracted several world-class geneticists and genetics investors to its board of advisors. They include:
- Jacques Cohen, PhD, embryologist, co-founder and former director for genetics laboratory Reprogenetics LLC (now CooperGenomics).
- Jerry Lanchbury, PhD, immunogeneticist and former chief scientific officer for Myriad Genetics.
- Barry Behr, PhD, Professor of Obstetrics and Gynecology Emeritus at the Stanford Medical Center.
- George Church, PhD, Professor of Genetics at Harvard Medical School-MIT, and co-founder of Veritas Genetics, one of the first companies to perform WGS for less than $1,000.
- Elad Gil, PhD, serial entrepreneur and co-founder of Color Genomics, a population health biotechnology company.
- Carlos Bustamante, PhD, MacArthur award winning population geneticist and CEO of Galatea Bio, a precision medicine artificial intelligence (AI) company that he co-founded.
- Anne Wojcicki, co-founder and CEO of direct-to-consumer genetic testing company 23andMe.
- and others.
The WGS test, according to Orchid, detects genetic errors in embryos that are linked to severe illnesses before a pregnancy even begins. And by sequencing 99% of an embryo’s DNA, the test can spot potential health risks that could affect a future baby.
According to its website, the PGT lab company uses the WGS data to identify both monogenic (single-gene) and polygenic (multiple-gene) diseases, including:
- Neurodevelopmental disorders, such as intellectual disability, autism spectrum, and epilepsy.
- Pediatric and adult-onset cancers, including breast, prostate, pancreatic, ovarian, and colorectal cancers.
- Birth defects including heart, skeletal, and craniosynostosis, and vision and hearing loss.
- Chromosomal abnormalities, such as molar pregnancies and microduplication and microdeletion syndromes.
The company also claims its genetic screening can predict the risk of brain health issues in the unborn, such as Alzheimer’s disease, bipolar disorder, and schizophrenia, as well as heart health issues such atrial fibrillation and coronary artery disease.
Not all Genetics Experts Agree
Orchid is not without its critics. Knowledgeable, credible experts have questioned the appropriateness of this type of genetic testing. They fear it could become a modern-day form of eugenics.
Andrew McQuillin, PhD, Professor of Molecular Psychiatry at University College London, has concerns about Orchid’s preimplantation genetic testing. He maintains that it is difficult to control how such data is used, and that even the most accurate sequencing techniques do not predict disease risk very well.
“[Polygenic risk scores are] useful in the research context, but at the individual level, they’re not actually terribly useful to predict who’s going to develop schizophrenia or not,” McQuillin told Science. “We can come up with guidance on how these things should be used. The difficulty is that official guidance like that doesn’t feature anywhere in the marketing from these companies.”
McQuillin also stated that researchers must have an extensive discussion regarding the implications of this type of embryo screening.
“We need to take a look at whether this is really something we should be doing. It’s the type of thing that, if it becomes widespread, in 40 years’ time, we will ask, ‘What on Earth have we done?’” McQuillin emphasized.
It takes about three weeks for couples to receive their report back from Orchid after completing the whole genome sequence of a preimplantation embryo. A board-certified genetic counselor then consults with the parents to help them understand the results.
Founder and CEO Noor Siddiqui hopes Orchid will be able to scale up its operations and introduce more automation to the testing process to the cost per embryo.
“We want to make this something that’s accessible to everyone,” she told CNBC.
“I think this has the potential to totally redefine reproduction,” she added. “I just think that’s really exciting to be able to make people more confident about one of the most important decisions of their life, and to give them a little bit more control.”
Clinical laboratories have long been involved in prenatal screening to gain insight into risk levels associated with certain genetic disorders. Even some of that testing comes with controversy and ambiguous findings. Whether Orchid Health’s PGT process delivers accurate, reliable diagnostic insights regarding preimplantation embryos remains to be seen.