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Genomics England Increases Goal of Whole Genome Sequencing Project from 100,000 to 500,000 Sequences in Five Years

Genomic sequencing continues to benefit patients through precision medicine clinical laboratory treatments and pharmacogenomic therapies

EDITOR’S UPDATE—Jan. 26, 2022: Since publication of this news briefing, officials from Genomics England contacted us to explain the following:

  • The “five million genome sequences” was an aspirational goal mentioned by then Secretary of State for Health and Social Care Matt Hancock, MP, in an October 2, 2018, press release issued by Genomics England.
  • As of this date a spokesman for Genomics England confirmed to Dark Daily that, with the initial goal of 100,000 genomes now attained, the immediate goal is to sequence 500,000 genomes.
  • This goal was confirmed in a tweet posted by Chris Wigley, CEO at Genomics England.

In accordance with this updated input, we have revised the original headline and information in this news briefing that follows.

What better proof of progress in whole human genome screening than the announcement that the United Kingdom’s 100,000 Genome Project has not only achieved that milestone, but will now increase the goal to 500,000 whole human genomes? This should be welcome news to clinical laboratory managers, as it means their labs will be positioned as the first-line provider of genetic data in support of clinical care.

Many clinical pathologists here in the United States are aware of the 100,000 Genome Project, established by the National Health Service (NHS) in England (UK) in 2012. Genomics England’s new goal to sequence 500,000 whole human genomes is to pioneer a “lasting legacy for patients by introducing genomic sequencing into the wider healthcare system,” according to Technology Networks.

The importance of personalized medicine and of the power of precise, accurate diagnoses cannot be understated. This announcement by Genomics England will be of interest to diagnosticians worldwide, especially doctors who diagnose and treat patients with chronic and life-threatening diseases.

Building a Vast Genomics Infrastructure

Genetic sequencing launched the era of precision medicine in healthcare. Through genomics, drug therapies and personalized treatments were developed that improved outcomes for all patients, especially those suffering with cancer and other chronic diseases. And so far, the role of genomics in healthcare has only been expanding, as Dark Daily covered in numerous ebriefings.

In the US, the National Institute of Health’s (NIH’s) Human Genome Project sequenced the first whole genome in 2003. That achievement opened the door to a new era of precision medicine.

Genomics England, which is wholly owned by the Department of Health and Social Care in the United Kingdom, was formed in 2012 with the goal of sequencing 100,000 whole genomes of patients enrolled in the UK National Health Service. That goal was met in 2018, and now the NHS aspires to sequence 500,000 genomes.

Richard Scott, MD, PhD

“The last 10 years have been really exciting, as we have seen genetic data transition from being something that is useful in a small number of contexts with highly targeted tests, towards being a central part of mainstream healthcare settings,” Richard Scott, MD, PhD (above), Chief Medical Officer at Genomics England told Technology Networks. Much of the progress has found its way into clinical laboratory testing and precision medicine diagnostics. (Photo copyright: Genomics England.)

Genomics England’s initial goals included:

  • To create an ethical program based on consent,
  • To set up a genomic medicine service within the NHS to benefit patients,
  • To make new discoveries and gain insights into the use of genomics, and
  • To begin the development of a UK genomics industry.

To gain the greatest benefit from whole genome sequencing (WGS), a substantial amount of data infrastructure must exist. “The amount of data generated by WGS is quite large and you really need a system that can process the data well to achieve that vision,” said Richard Scott, MD, PhD, Chief Medical Officer at Genomics England.

In early 2020, Weka, developer of the WekaFS, a fully parallel and distributed file system, announced that it would be working with Genomics England on managing the enormous amount of genomic data. When Genomics England reached 100,000 sequenced genomes, it had already gathered 21 petabytes of data. The organization expects to have 140 petabytes by 2023, notes a Weka case study.

Putting Genomics England’s WGS Project into Action

WGS has significantly impacted the diagnosis of rare diseases. For example, Genomics England has contributed to projects that look at tuberculosis genomes to understand why the disease is sometimes resistant to certain medications. Genomic sequencing also played an enormous role in fighting the COVID-19 pandemic.

Scott notes that COVID-19 provides an example of how sequencing can be used to deliver care. “We can see genomic influences on the risk of needing critical care in COVID-19 patients and in how their immune system is behaving. Looking at this data alongside other omics information, such as the expression of different protein levels, helps us to understand the disease process better,” he said.

What’s Next for Genomics Sequencing?

As the research continues and scientists begin to better understand the information revealed by sequencing, other areas of scientific study like proteomics and metabolomics are becoming more important.

“There is real potential for using multiple strands of data alongside each other, both for discovery—helping us to understand new things about diseases and how [they] affect the body—but also in terms of live healthcare,” Scott said.

Along with expanding the target of Genomics England to 500,000 genomes sequenced, the UK has published a National Genomic Strategy named Genome UK. This plan describes how the research into genomics will be used to benefit patients. “Our vision is to create the most advanced genomic healthcare ecosystem in the world, where government, the NHS, research and technology communities work together to embed the latest advances in patient care,” according to the Genome UK website.

Clinical laboratories professionals with an understanding of diagnostics will recognize WGS’ impact on the healthcare industry. By following genomic sequencing initiatives, such as those coming from Genomics England, pathologists can keep their labs ready to take advantage of new discoveries and insights that will improve outcomes for patients.

Dava Stewart

Related Information:

The 100,000 Genomes Project

Genome Sequencing in Modern Medicine: An Interview with Genomics England

WekaIO Accelerates Five Million Genomes Project at Genomics England

Genomics England Improved Scale and Performance for On-Premises Cluster

Whole Genome Sequencing Increases Rare Disorder Diagnosis by 31%

Genome UK: The Future of Healthcare

Proof of Concept Study Demonstrates Machine Learning and AI Can Identify Cancer Cells Based on pH Levels; May Have Applications in Surgical Pathology

The new method employs a pH sensitive dye and AI algorithms to ‘distinguish between cells originating from normal and cancerous tissue, as well as among different types of cancer’ the researchers said

Might a pH-sensitive dye in tandem with an image analysis solution soon be used to identify cancerous cells within blood samples as well within tissue? Recent research indicates that could be a possibility. If further studies and clinical trials confirm this capability, then anatomic pathologists could gain another valuable tool to use in diagnosing cancers and other types of disease.

Currently, surgical pathologists use a variety of hematoxylin and eosin stains (H/E) to bring out useful features in cells and cell structures. So, staining tissue on glass slides is a common practice. Now, thanks to machine learning and artificial intelligence, anatomic pathologists may soon have a similar tool for spotting cancer cells within both tissue and blood samples.

Researchers at the National University of Singapore (NUS) have developed a method for identifying cancer that uses a pH sensitive dye called bromothymol blue. The dye reacts to various levels of acidity in cancer cells by turning colors. “The pH inside cancer cells tends to be higher than that of healthy cells. This phenomenon occurs at the very early phases of cancer development and becomes amplified as it progresses,” Labroots reported.

In “Machine Learning Based Approach to pH Imaging and Classification of Single Cancer Cells,” published in the journal APL Bioengineering, the NUS researchers wrote, “Here, we leverage a recently developed pH imaging modality and machine learning-based single-cell segmentation and classification to identify different cancer cell lines based on their characteristic intracellular pH. This simple method opens up the potential to perform rapid noninvasive identification of living cancer cells for early cancer diagnosis and further downstream analyses.”

According to an NUS news release, the bromothymol blue dye is “applied onto patients’ cells” being held ex vivo in cell culture dishes. The dye’s color changes depending on the acidity level of the cancer cells it encounters. Microscopic images of the now-visible cancers cells are taken, and a machine-learning algorithm analyzes the images before generating a report for the anatomic pathologist.

The NUS researchers claim the test can provide answers in about half an hour with 95% accuracy, Labroots reported.

“The ability to analyze single cells is one of the holy grails of health innovation for precision medicine or personalized therapy. Our proof-of-concept study demonstrates the potential of our technique to be used as a fast, inexpensive and accurate tool for cancer diagnosis,” said Lim Chwee Teck, PhD, NUS Society Professor and Director of NUS’ Institute for Health Innovation and Technology, in the NUS news release.

Lim Chwee Teck, PhD

The novel technique for differentiating cancer cells from non-cancerous cells being developed at the National University of Singapore (NUS) could eventually become useful in detecting cancer cells in tissue samples, either obtained from tumor biopsies or blood samples. “As the number of cells in these samples can be in millions or even billions, the ability to detect the very few cancer cells among the others will be useful for clinicians,” NUS Society Professor and Director of NUS’ Institute for Health Innovation and Technology, Lim Chwee Teck, PhD (above) told The Straits Times. (Photo copyright: The Straits Times.)

AI Cell Analysis versus Laborious Medical Laboratory Steps

By developing an AI-driven method, Professor Lim and the NUS team sought to improve upon time-consuming techniques for identifying cells that traditionally involve using florescent probes, nanoparticles, and labeling steps, or for cells to be fixed or terminated.

“Unlike other cell analysis techniques, our approach uses simple, inexpensive equipment, and does not require lengthy preparation and sophisticated devices. Using AI, we are able to screen cells faster and accurately,” Professor Lim told Labroots. “Furthermore, we can monitor and analyze living cells without causing any toxicity to the cells or the need to kill them.”

The new technique may have implications for cancer detection in tumor tissue as well as in liquid biopsies.

“We are also exploring the possibility of performing the real-time analysis on circulating cancer cells suspended in blood,” Professor Lim said in the NUS news release. “One potential application for this would be in liquid biopsy where tumor cells that escaped from a primary tumor can be isolated in a minimally-invasive fashion from bodily fluids such as blood.”

Diagnosing Cancer in Real Time

The NUS’ method requires more research and clinical studies before it could become an actual tool for anatomic pathologists and other cancer diagnosticians. Additionally, the NUS researchers acknowledged that the focus on only four cell lines (normal cells, benign breast tumor cells, breast cancer cells, and pancreatic cancer cells) limited their study, as did lack of comparison with conventional florescent pH indicators.

Still, the NUS scientists are already planning more studies to advance their concept to different stages of cell malignancy. They envision a “real-time” version of the technique to enable recognition of cells and fast separation of those that need to be referred to clinical laboratories for molecular testing and/or genetic sequencing.

Medical laboratory leaders may want to follow the NUS study. An inexpensive AI-driven method that can accurately detect and classify cancer cells based on pH within the cells is provocative and may be eventually become integrated with other cancer diagnostics.

Donna Marie Pocius

Related Information

Machine Learning-Based Approach to pH Imaging and Classification of Single Cancer Cells

Machine Learning Can Identify Cancerous Cells by Their Acidity

NUS Researchers Harness AI to Identify Cancer Cells by Their Acidity: Novel Technique Paves Way for Faster, Inexpensive, and Accurate Cancer Diagnosis

AI Test Distinguishes Cancer Cells from Healthy Ones Based on Acidity Levels

Researchers Use AI to Identify the pH of Cancer Cells

NIH’s All-of-Us Research Program Offers Free Genetic Testing to Increase Diversity of Its Database

All-of-Us program is free to participants and provides data to more than 800 research studies for cancer, COVID-19, Alzheimer’s, and other diseases; findings will lead to new biomarkers for clinical laboratory tests

It is hard to say no to free. At least that is what the National Institutes of Health (NIH) is counting on to help increase the size and diversity of its database of genetic sequences. The NIH’s All-of-Us Research Program is offering free genetic testing for all participants in the program, as well as free wearable Fitbits for those selected to provide lifestyle and behavior data.

Many pathologists and clinical laboratory managers know that this group of researchers hope to build a database of more than one million genetic sequences to better understand “how certain genetic traits affect underrepresented communities, which could greatly affect the future of customized healthcare,” CBS affiliate 8 News Now reported.

“Customized healthcare” is a euphemism for precision medicine, and genetic sequencing is increasingly playing a key role in the development of personalized diagnostics and therapeutics for cancer and other deadly diseases.

In “VA’s ‘Million Veterans Program’ Research Study Receives Its 100,000th Human Genome Sequence,” Dark Daily described how the NIH’s All-of-Us program was launched in 2018 to aid research into health outcomes influenced by genetics, environments, and lifestyle. At that time, the program had biological samples from more than 270,000 people with a goal of one million participants.

Matthew Thombs, Senior Project Manager of Digital Health Technology at Scripps Research in La Jolla, Calif., joined the All-of-Us program after losing a family member “to a condition I believe could have been managed with changes to their lifestyle,” he told 8 News Now.

“What we are building will empower researchers with the information needed to make such conclusions (about possible need to change lifestyles) and forever alter how diseases are treated,” he added. “I hope that what we are doing here will help my son grow up in a world where healthcare is more of a priority, and many of the ailments we see today are things of the past.”

Such genetic testing could discover biomarkers for future personalized clinical laboratory diagnostics and drug therapies, a key aspect of precision medicine.

All-of-Us participant being prepped for genetic testing

The photo above shows an All-of-Us participant being prepped to provide a biological sample for genetic testing. According to Matthew Thombs, Senior Project Manager of Digital Health Technology at Scripps Research, “participants can provide as much or as little information as they like, every single data point matters.” The collected data is shared anonymously with more than 800 research studies for COVID-19, Alzheimer’s, cancer, and other diseases, 8 News Now reported. (Photo copyright: KLAS-TV.)

Scripps Research Integrates Mobile Health Technology into All-of-Us Program

A critical aspect of the NIH’s research is determining how people’s behavior combined with their genetics may predispose them to certain diseases. Nonprofit research institution Scripps Research is working with the NIH’s All of Us Research Program to enroll and collect biological samples from one million US residents.

In addition, Scripps is fitting study participants with wearable mobile health devices to capture data on their habits and lifestyles.

“Until now, the treatment and prevention of disease has been based on a ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach, with most therapeutics tailored for the ‘average patient’. However, advances in genomic sequencing, mobile health technologies, and increasingly sophisticated informatics are ushering in a new era of precision medicine. This new approach takes into account differences in people’s genes, environment, and lifestyles giving medical professionals resources to design targeted treatments and prevention strategies for the individual,” Scripps states on its website.

Can wearable fitness devices and related data contribute to research on genetics and healthcare outcomes? Scripps aims to find out. It has fitted 10,000 people in the All-of-Us program with Fitbit devices (Fitbit Charge 4 tracker or Fitbit Versa 3 smartwatch) at no cost. Since February, Scripps has distributed 10,000 Fitbit wearable devices through the All-of-Us program.

“By sharing information about their health, habits, and environment, participants will help researchers understand why people get sick or stay healthy,” the Scripps website adds.

The Scripps researchers plan to analyze how the people use the wearable devices. They are also accumulating data about participants’ physical activity, heart rate, sleep, and other health metrics and outcomes “as part of the broader All of Us program,” a Scripps news release explained.

“This is the first time All of Us is distributing devices to participants. Our goal is to better understand how participants engage during research studies in order to continually improve user experience and participation. We also expect to learn more about how wearable data may inform the personalization of healthcare,” said Julia Moore Vogel, PhD, Director of The Participant Center at the All of Us Research Program at Scripps Research, in the news release.

All-of-Us Program Records ‘Significant Progress in Participant Diversity’

As of June, the NIH has enrolled 386,000 participants into the All-of-Us program, with 278,000 consenting to all of the program’s steps. Eighty percent of biological samples in the collection are from people in communities that have been under-represented in previous biomedical research an NIH new release noted. According to the NIH, that gives the All-of-Us research program “the most diverse dataset.”

What will all this research ultimately bring to clinical laboratories? Who knows? Nevertheless, if federal institutions like the NIH and non-profit research companies like Scripps believe precision medicine is worth investing in, then the All-of-Us program is worth watching.

A diverse database of a million genetic sequences combined with lifestyle and behavioral data may lead to new and improved personalized diagnostics and drug therapies.

—Donna Marie Pocius

Related Information

Free Genetic Testing Offered to Propel Medical Research; All of Us Building “Most Diverse Database”

NIH’s All of Us Research Program Records Significant Participant Diversity and Research Underway

Through All of Us, Scripps Research Launches Wearable Technology Study to Accelerate Precision Medicine

VA’s Million Veterans Program Research Study Receives Its 100,000th Human Genome Sequence

February COVID-19 Superspreader Event in Boston Confirmed by Use of Genetic Sequencing as Next-Gen Sequencing Is Put to Novel Uses, including in Clinical Laboratories

Gene sequencing is enabling disease tracking in new ways that include retesting laboratory specimens from before the SARS-CoV-2 outbreak to determine when it arrived in the US

On February 26 of this year, nearly 200 executives and employees of neuroscience-biotechnology company Biogen gathered at the Boston Marriott Long Wharf hotel for their annual leadership conference. Unbeknownst to the attendees, by the end of the following day, dozens of them had been exposed to and become infected by SARS-CoV-2, the coronavirus that causes the COVID-19 illness.

Researchers now have hard evidence that attendees at this meeting returned to their communities and spread the infection. The findings of this study will be relevant to pathologists and clinical laboratory managers who are cooperating with health authorities in their communities to identify infected individuals and track the spread of the novel coronavirus.

This “superspreader” event has been closely investigated and has led to intriguing conclusions concerning the use of genetic sequencing to revealed vital information about the COVID-19 pandemic. Recent improvements in gene sequencing technology is giving scientists new ways to trace the spread of COVID-19 and other diseases, as well as a method for monitoring mutations and speeding research into various treatments and vaccines. 

Genetic Sequencing Traces an Outbreak

“With genetic data, a record of our poor decisions is being captured in a whole new way,” Bronwyn MacInnis, PhD, Director of Pathogen Genomic Surveillance at the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard, told The Washington Post (WaPo) during its analysis of the COVID-19 superspreading event. MacInnis is one of many Broad Institute, Harvard, MIT, and state of Massachusetts scientists who co-authored a study that detailed the coronavirus’ spread across Boston, including from the Biogen conference.

Titled, “Phylogenetic Analysis of SARS-CoV-2 in the Boston Area Highlights the Role of Recurrent Importation and Superspreading Events,” the paper explains how the researchers “sequenced and analyzed 772 complete SARS-CoV-2 genomes from the region” in order to investigate how the virus was introduced and spread through the area. They traced a specific mutation in the virus—“a simple switch of two letters in the virus’ 30,000-character genetic code,” WaPo reported.

What they discovered is both surprising and enlightening. According to WaPo’s report, at least 35 new cases of the virus were linked directly to the Biogen conference, and the same strain was discovered in outbreaks in two homeless shelters in Boston, where 122 people were infected. The variant tracked by the Boston researchers was found in roughly 30% of the cases that have been sequenced in the state, as well as in Alaska, Senegal, and Luxembourg.

“The data reveal over 80 introductions into the Boston area, predominantly from elsewhere in the United States and Europe. We studied two superspreading events covered by the data, events that led to very different outcomes because of the timing and populations involved. One produced rapid spread in a vulnerable population but little onward transmission, while the other was a major contributor to sustained community transmission,” the researchers noted in their study abstract.

“The same two events differed significantly in the number of new mutations seen, raising the possibility that SARS-CoV-2 superspreading might encompass disparate transmission dynamics. Our results highlight the failure of measures to prevent importation into [Massachusetts] early in the outbreak, underscore the role of superspreading in amplifying an outbreak in a major urban area, and lay a foundation for contact tracing informed by genetic data,” they concluded.

Anthony Fauci, MD
Some experts think humankind may be entering a period of increased pandemics. In their report published in Cell, titled, “Emerging Pandemic Diseases: How We Got to COVID-19,” Anthony Fauci, MD (above) Director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), and David Morens, MD, a senior associate professor at Johns Hopkins School of Public Health and Senior Advisor to Fauci, wrote, “One can conclude from this recent experience that we have entered a pandemic era. The causes of this new and dangerous situation are multifaceted, complex, and deserving of serious examination.” (Photo copyright: NIAID.)

Genetic Sequencing and Mutation Tracking

The use of genetic sequencing to trace the virus could inform measures to control the spread in new ways, but currently, only about 0.33% of cases in the United States are being sequenced, MacInnis told WaPo, and that not sequencing samples is “throwing away the crown jewels of what you really want to know.”

Another role that genetic sequencing is playing in this pandemic is in tracking viral mutations. One of the ways that pandemics worsen is when viruses mutate to become deadlier or more easily spread. Scientists are using genetic sequencing to monitor SARS-CoV-2 for such mutations.

A group of scientists at Texas A&M University led by Yue Xing, PhD, published a paper titled, “MicroGMT: A Mutation Tracker for SARS-CoV-2 and Other Microbial Genome Sequences,” which explains that “Although most mutations are expected to be selectively neural, it is important to monitor if SARS-CoV-2 will eventually evolve to be a stronger or weaker infectious agent as time goes on. Therefore, it is vital to track mutations from newly sequenced SARS-CoV-2 genome.”

Another group of researchers have identified such a mutation. “A SARS-CoV-2 variant carrying the Spike protein amino acid change D614G has become the most prevalent form in the global pandemic. Dynamic tracking of variant frequencies revealed a recurrent pattern of G614 increase at multiple geographic levels: national, regional, and municipal,” Bette Korber, PhD and her colleagues wrote in “Tracking Changes in SARS-CoV-2 Spike: Evidence That D614G Increases Infectivity of the COVID-19 Virus,” published in Cell. Korber is a Laboratory Fellow at Los Alamos National Laboratory and visiting faculty at Santa Fe Institute.

Korber’s findings are important because the mutation the scientists identified appears to have a fitness advantage. “Our data show that, over the course of one month, the variant carrying the D614G Spike mutation became the globally dominant form of SARS-CoV-2,” they wrote. Additionally, the study noted, people infected with the mutated variant appear to have a higher viral load in their upper respiratory tracts.

Genetic Sequencing, the Race for Treatments, Vaccines, and Managing Future Pandemics

A vaccine is the best hope for stopping a pandemic, but short of a vaccine, an effective clinical laboratory treatment is the next best thing. And as Dark Daily reported in “Advances in Gene Sequencing Technology Enable Scientists to Respond to the Novel Coronavirus Outbreak in Record Time with Medical Lab Tests, Therapies,” genetic sequencing is quickly becoming a critical tool to develop both.

If, as Fauci and Morens predict, future pandemics are likely, improvements in gene sequencing and analysis will become even more important for tracing, monitoring, and suppressing outbreaks. Clinical laboratory managers will want to watch this closely, as medical labs that process genetic sequencing will, no doubt, be part of that operation.

—Dava Stewart

Related Information:

Genetic Data Show How a Single Superspreading Event Sent Coronavirus Across Massachusetts and the Nation

How the Biogen Leadership Conference in Boston Spread the Coronavirus

How a Premier U.S. Drug Company Became a Virus ‘Super Spreader’

This Cambridge Drug Company Inadvertently Spread the Coronavirus. Now, It’s Creating A ‘Biobank’ To Hopefully Treat the Disease

Phylogenetic Analysis of SARS-CoV-2 in the Boston Area Highlights the Role of Recurrent Importation and Superspreading Events

MicroGMT: A Mutation Tracker for SARS-CoV-2 and Other Microbial Genome Sequences

Tracking Changes in SARS-CoV-2 Spike: Evidence That D614G Increases Infectivity of the COVID-19 Virus

The D614G Mutation in the SARS-CoV-2 Spike Protein Reduces S1 Shedding and Increases Infectivity

Emerging Pandemic Diseases: How We Got to COVID-19 Advances in Gene Sequencing Technology Enable Scientists to Respond to the Novel Coronavirus Outbreak in Record Time with Medical Lab Tests, Therapies

New CDC-led Genomics Consortium That Harnessed Genetic Sequencing to Track the SARS-CoV-2 Coronavirus includes Clinical Laboratories and IVD Firms

Medical laboratories are already using gene sequencing as part of a global effort to identify new variants of the coronavirus and their genetic ancestors

Thanks to advances in genetic sequencing technology that enable medical laboratories to sequence organisms faster, more accurately, and at lower cost than ever before, clinical pathology laboratories worldwide are using that capability to analyze the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus and identify variants as they emerge in different parts of the world.

The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) now plans to harness the power of gene sequencing through a new consortium called SPHERES (SARS-CoV-2 Sequencing for Public Health Emergency Response, Epidemiology, and Surveillance) to “coordinate SARS-CoV-2 sequencing across the United States,” states a CDC news release. The consortium is led by the CDC’s Advanced Molecular Detection (AMD) program and “aims to generate information about the virus that will strengthen COVID-19 mitigation strategies.”

The consortium is comprised of 11 federal agencies, 20 academic institutions, state public health laboratories in 21 states, nine non-profit research organizations, and 14 lab and IVD companies, including:

  • Abbott Diagnostics
  • bioMérieux
  • Color Genomics
  • Ginkgo Bioworks
  • IDbyDNA
  • Illumina
  • In-Q-Tel
  • LabCorp
  • One Codex
  • Oxford Nanopore Technologies
  • Pacific Biosciences
  • Qiagen
  • Quest Diagnostics
  • Verily Life Sciences

‘Fundamentally Changing How Public Health Responds’

Gene sequencing and related technologies have “fundamentally changed how public health responds in terms of surveillance and outbreak response,” said Duncan MacCannell, PhD, Chief Science Officer for the CDC’s Office of Advanced Molecular Detection (OAMD), in an April 30 New York Times (NYT) article, which stated that the CDC SPHERES program “will help trace patterns of transmission, investigate outbreaks, and map how the virus is evolving, which can affect a cure.”

The CDC says that rapid DNA sequencing of SARS-CoV-2 will help monitor significant changes in the virus, support contact tracing efforts, provide information for developers of diagnostics and therapies, and “advance public health research in the areas of transmission dynamics, host response, and evolution of the virus.”

The sequencing laboratories in the consortium have agreed to “release their information into the public domain quickly and in a standard way,” the NYT reported, adding that the project includes standards for what types of information medical laboratories should submit, including, “where and when a sample was taken,” and other critical details.

Even in its early phase, the CDC’s SPHERES project has “made a tangible impact in the number of sequences we’re able to deposit and make publicly available on a daily basis,” said Pavitra Roychoudhury, PhD (above), Acting Instructor and Senior Fellow at the University of Washington, and Research Associate at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, in an e-mail to the NYT. “What we’re essentially doing is reading these small fragments of viral material and trying to jigsaw puzzle the genome together,” said Roychoudhury in an April 28 New York Times article which covered in detail how experts are tracking the coronavirus since it arrived in the US. (Photo copyright: LinkedIn.)

Sharing Data Between Sequencing Laboratories and Biotech Companies

The CDC announced the SPHERES initiative on April 30, although it launched in early April, the NYT reported.

According to the CDC, SPHERES’ objectives include:

  • To bring together a network of sequencing laboratories, bioinformatics capacity and subject matter expertise under the umbrella of a massive and coordinated public health sequencing effort.
  • To identify and prioritize capabilities and resource needs across the network and to align sources of federal, non-governmental, and private sector funding and support with areas of greatest impact and need.
  • To improve coordination of genomic sequencing between institutions and jurisdictions and to enable more resilience across the network.
  • To champion concepts of openness, standards-based analysis, and rapid data sharing throughout the United States and worldwide during the COVID-19 pandemic response.
  • To accelerate data generation and sharing, including the rapid release of high-quality viral sequence data from clinical and public health laboratories into both the National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI) and Global Initiative on Sharing All Influenza Data (GISAID) repositories in near-real time.
  • To provide a common forum for US public, private, and academic institutions to share protocols, methods, bioinformatics tools, standards, and best practices.
  • To establish consistent data and metadata standards, including streamlined repository submission processes, sample prioritization criteria, and a framework for shared, privacy-compliant unique case identifiers.
  • To align with other national sequencing and bioinformatics networks, and to support global efforts to advance the use of standards and open data in public health.

Implications for Developing a Vaccine

As the virus continues to mutate and evolve, one question is whether a vaccine developed for one variant will work on others. However, several experts told The Washington Post that the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus is relatively stable compared to viruses that cause seasonal flu (influenza).

“At this point, the mutation rate of the virus would suggest that the vaccine developed for SARS-CoV-2 would be a single vaccine, rather than a new vaccine every year like the flu vaccine,” Peter Thielen, a molecular biologist at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory, told the Washington Post.

Nor, he said, is one variant likely to cause worse clinical outcomes than others. “So far, we don’t have any evidence linking a specific virus [strain] to any disease severity score. Right now, disease severity is much more likely to be driven by other factors.”

That point was echoed by Anthony Fauci, MD, Director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, in a March 22 interview with CBS News. “I have no doubt it’s mutating as all RNA viruses mutate,” he said. However, he added, “we have not seen thus far any type of change in the way it’s acting.”

Fast improvements in gene sequencing technology have made it faster, more accurate, and cheaper to sequence. Thus, as the COVID-19 outbreak happened, there were many clinical laboratories around the world with the equipment, the staff, and the expertise to sequence the novel coronavirus and watch it mutate from generation to generation and from region to region around the globe. This capability has never been available in outbreaks prior to the current SARS-CoV-2 outbreak.

—Stephen Beale

Related Information:

Genome Canada Leads $40 Million Genomics Initiative to Address COVID-19 Pandemic

COVID-19 Genomics UK

Bad News Wrapped in Protein: Inside the Coronavirus Genome

How Coronavirus Mutates and Spreads

Covid-19 Arrived in Seattle. Where It Went from There Stunned the Scientists

8 Strains of the Coronavirus Are Circling the Globe. Here’s What Clues They’re Giving Scientists

SARS-CoV-2 Genomes Let Researchers Retrace Viral Spread, Mitigation Effects

Varied COVID-19 Strains Not a Problem for Vaccines—For Now

The Coronavirus Mutates More Slowly Than the Flu, Which Means a Vaccine Will Likely Be Effective Long-Term

Response to “On the Origin and Continuing Evolution of SARS-CoV-2”

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