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:
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:
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.
If further research confirms these findings, clinical laboratory identification of cancer cells could lead to new treatments for certain childhood cancers
Can cancer cells be changed into normal healthy cells? According to molecular biologists at the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory (CSHL) in Long Island the answer is, apparently, yes. At least for certain types of cancer. And clinical laboratories and anatomic pathologists may play a key role in identifying these specific cancer cells and then guiding physicians in selecting the most appropriate therapies.
The cancer cells in question are called rhabdomyosarcoma (RMS) and are “particularly aggressive,” according to ScienceAlert. Generally, and most sadly, the cancer primarily affects children below the age of 18. It begins in skeletal muscle, mutates throughout the body, and is often deadly.
“Treatment usually involves chemotherapy, surgery, and radiation procedures. Now, new research by scientists at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory demonstrates differentiation therapy as a new treatment option for RMS,” Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology News (GEN) reported.
For those young cancer patients, this new research could become a lifesaving therapy as further studies validate the approach, which has been in development for six years.
“Every successful medicine has its origin story,” said Christopher Vakoc, MD, PhD (above), a molecular biologist at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, who led the team that develop the method for converting cancer cells into healthy cells. “And research like this is the soil from which new drugs are born.” As these findings are confirmed, it may be that clinical laboratories and anatomic pathologists will be needed to identify the specific cancer cells in patients once treatment is developed. (Photo copyright: Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory.)
According to an article in the Chinese Journal of Cancer on the National Library of Medicine website, “Differentiation therapy is based on the concept that a neoplasm is a differentiation disorder [aka, differentiation syndrome] or a dedifferentiation disease. In response to the induction of differentiation, tumor cells can revert to normal or nearly normal cells, thereby altering their malignant phenotype and ultimately alleviating the tumor burden or curing the malignant disease without damaging normal cells.”
Vakoc and his team first pursued differentiation therapy to treat Ewing sarcoma, a pediatric cancer that forms in soft tissues or in bone. In January 2023, GEN reported that the researchers had discovered that “Ewing sarcoma could potentially be stopped by developing a drug that blocks the protein known as ETV6.”
“This protein is present in all cells. But when you perturb the protein, most normal cells don’t care,” Vakoc told GEN. “The process by which the sarcoma forms turns this ETV6 molecule—this relatively innocuous, harmless protein that isn’t doing very much—into something that’s now controlling a life-death decision of the tumor cell.”
The researchers discovered that when ETV6 was blocked in lab-grown Ewing sarcoma cells, the cells became normal, healthy cells. “The sarcoma cell reverts back into being a normal cell again,” they told GEN. “The shape of the cell changes. The behavior of the cells changes. A lot of the cells will arrest their growth. It’s really an explosive effect.”
The scientists then turned their attention on Rhabdomyosarcoma to see if they could elicit a similar response.
“In this study, we developed a high-throughput genetic screening method to identify genes that cause rhabdomyosarcoma cells to differentiate into normal muscle. We used this platform to discover the protein NF-Y as an important molecule that contributes to rhabdomyosarcoma biology. CRISPR-based genetic targeting of NF-Y converts rhabdomyosarcoma cells into differentiated muscle, and we reveal the mechanism by which this occurs,” they wrote in PNAS.
“Scientists have successfully induced rhabdomyosarcoma cells to transform into normal, healthy muscle cells. It’s a breakthrough that could see the development of new therapies for the cruel disease, and it could lead to similar breakthroughs for other types of human cancers,” ScienceAlert reported.
“The cells literally turn into muscle,” Vakoc told ScienceAlert. “The tumor loses all cancer attributes. They’re switching from a cell that just wants to make more of itself to cells devoted to contraction. Because all its energy and resources are now devoted to contraction, it can’t go back to this multiplying state,” he added.
Promising New Therapies for Multiple Cancers in Children
Differentiation therapy as a treatment option gained popularity when “scientists noticed that leukemia cells are not fully mature, similar to undifferentiated stem cells that haven’t yet fully developed into a specific cell type. Differentiation therapy forces those cells to continue their development and differentiate into specific mature cell types,” ScienceAlert noted.
Vakoc and his team had previously “effectively reversed the mutation of the cancer cells that emerge in Ewing sarcoma.” It was those promising results from differentiation therapy that inspired the team to push further and attempt success with rhabdomyosarcoma.
Their results are “a key step in the development of differentiation therapy for rhabdomyosarcoma and could accelerate the timeline for which such treatments are expected,” ScienceAlert commented.
Developing New Therapies for Deadly Cancers
Vakoc and his team are considering differentiation therapy’s potential effectiveness for other types of cancer as well. They note that “their technique, now demonstrated on two different types of sarcoma, could be applicable to other sarcomas and cancer types since it gives scientists the tools needed to find how to cause cancer cells to differentiate,” ScienceAlert reported.
“Since many forms of human sarcoma exhibit a defect in cell differentiation, the methodology described here might have broad relevance for the investigation of these tumors,” the researchers wrote in PNAS.
Clinical laboratories and anatomic pathologist play a critical role in identifying many types of cancers. And though any treatment that comes from the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory research is years away, it illustrates how new insights into the basic dynamics of cancer cells is helping researchers develop effective therapies for attacking those cancers.
Screening and analysis of ocean samples also identified a possible missing link in how the RNA viruses evolved
An international team of scientists has used genetic screening and machine learning techniques to identify more than 5,500 previously unknown species of marine RNA viruses and is proposing five new phyla (biological groups) of viruses. The latter would double the number of RNA virus phyla to 10, one of which may be a missing link in the early evolution of the microbes.
Though the newly-discovered viruses are not currently associated with human disease—and therefore do not drive any current medical laboratory testing—for virologists and other microbiologists, “a fuller catalog of these organisms is now available to advance scientific understanding of how viruses evolve,” said Dark Daily Editor-in-Chief Robert Michel.
“While scientists have cataloged hundreds of thousands of DNA viruses in their natural ecosystems, RNA viruses have been relatively unstudied,” wrote four microbiologists from Ohio State University (OSU) who participated in the study in an article they penned for The Conversation.
In contrast to the better-understood DNA virus, an RNA virus contains RNA instead of DNA as its genetic material, according to Samanthi Udayangani, PhD, in an article she penned for Difference Between. Examples of RNA viruses include:
One major difference, she explains, is that RNA viruses mutate at a higher rate than do DNA viruses.
The OSU scientists identified the new species by analyzing a database of RNA sequences from plankton collected during a series of ocean expeditions aboard a French schooner owned by the Tara Ocean Foundation.
“Plankton are any aquatic organisms that are too small to swim against the current,” the authors explained in The Conversation. “They’re a vital part of ocean food webs and are common hosts for RNA viruses.”
The team’s screening process focused on the RNA-dependent RNA polymerase (RdRp) gene, “which has evolved for billions of years in RNA viruses, and is absent from other viruses or cells,” according to the OSU news story.
“RdRp is supposed to be one of the most ancient genes—it existed before there was a need for DNA,” Zayed said.
The RdRp gene “codes for a particular protein that allows a virus to replicate its genetic material. It is the only protein that all RNA viruses share because it plays an essential role in how they propagate themselves. Each RNA virus, however, has small differences in the gene that codes for the protein that can help distinguish one type of virus from another,” the study authors explained.
The screening “ultimately identified over 44,000 genes that code for the virus protein,” they wrote.
Identifying Five New Phyla
The researchers then turned to machine learning to organize the sequences and identify their evolutionary connections based on similarities in the RdRp genes.
“The more similar two genes were, the more likely viruses with those genes were closely related,” they wrote.
The technique classified many of the sequences within the five previously known phyla of RNA viruses:
But the researchers also identified five new phyla—including two dubbed “Taraviricota” and “Arctiviricota”—that “were particularly abundant across vast oceanic regions,” they wrote. Taraviricota is named after the Tara expeditions and Arctiviricota gets its name from the Arctic Ocean.
They speculated that Taraviricota “might be the missing link in the evolution of RNA viruses that researchers have long sought, connecting two different known branches of RNA viruses that diverged in how they replicate.”
In addition to the five new phyla, the researchers are proposing at least 11 new classes of RNA viruses, according to the OSU story. The scientists plan to issue a formal proposal to the International Committee on Taxonomy of Viruses (ICTV), the body responsible for classification and naming of viruses.
Studying RNA Viruses Outside of Disease Environments
“As the COVID-19 pandemic has shown, RNA viruses can cause deadly diseases. But RNA viruses also play a vital role in ecosystems because they can infect a wide array of organisms, including microbes that influence environments and food webs at the chemical level,” wrote the four study authors in The Conversation. “Mapping out where in the world these RNA viruses live can help clarify how they affect the organisms driving many of the ecological processes that run our planet. Our study also provides improved tools that can help researchers catalog new viruses as genetic databases grow.”
This remarkable study, which was partially funded by the US National Science Foundation, will be most intriguing to virologists and microbiologists. However, clinical laboratories also should be interested in the fact that the catalog of known viruses has just expanded by 5,500 types of RNA viruses.