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.
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 laboratory scientist who aided in the investigation compared DNA test results with publicly available genetic information
In an interesting twist in the solving of crime, genetic test results—along with help from a clinical laboratory scientist (CLS) turned amateur genealogist—guided relatives of Melissa Highsmith to her whereabouts after she was allegedly kidnapped as a toddler over half a century ago. According to The Guardian, the CLS helped locate Melissa by “interpreting the key DNA results and mining publicly available records.”
Highsmith’s abduction was one of the oldest missing person cases in the country and demonstrates how clinical laboratory skills can be applied outside the laboratory to help solve other problems—in this case, helping a family search for a kidnapped daughter—using genetic testing technologies that until recently were not available to the general public.
Thanks to a 23andMe at-home DNA test—and a tenacious clinical laboratory scientist/amateur genealogist—Melissa Highsmith (shown above at time of kidnapping and today) has been reunited with her birth family. This shows how genetic testing is being used in remarkable ways outside of the clinical laboratory. (Photo copyright: Highsmith family/People.)
Back in 1971, Melissa’s mother, Alta Apantenco, placed an advertisement in a local newspaper in Fort Worth, Texas, to hire a babysitter to care for her 21-month-old daughter. Apantenco hired Ruth Johnson to babysit her daughter without meeting the woman in person. Because Apantenco had to be at work, the child was handed over to Johnson by Apantenco’s roommate. The babysitter then allegedly abducted Melissa and disappeared with her.
Melissa’s family reported her missing to the police and searched for the snatched baby for more than 51 years. The family even organized a Facebook page called “Finding Melissa Highsmith” and sought outside assistance from the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC) in locating their lost relative, according to the New York Post.
The police and the FBI also got involved in the case, but few leads emerged over the decades.
Then, in September of 2022, Melissa’s family received a new lead regarding her location based on her father’s 23andMe DNA test results. Those results, along with a birthmark and date of birth, confirmed that Melissa was alive and well and residing in the Charleston, South Carolina area.
Over Thanksgiving weekend, Melissa was reunited with her mother, her father Jeffrie Highsmith, and two of her four siblings at a church in Fort Worth. She hopes to meet her remaining two siblings over the Christmas holidays.
“I can’t describe my feelings. I’m so happy to see my daughter that I didn’t ever think I would see again,” Apantenco told Saint Paul, Minnesota, television station KSTP.
“I couldn’t stop crying,” said Melissa’s sister Victoria Garner in a family statement. “I was overjoyed, and I’m still walking around in a fog trying to comprehend that my sister [was] right in front of me and that we found her,” The Guardian reported.
Clinical Laboratory Scientist Aids in the Investigation
The 23andMe test results alerted the family to the existence of a few unknown relatives that could be connected to the DNA of Melissa’s father. The family then contacted a genealogist and clinical laboratory scientist from Minnesota named Lisa Jo Schiele to help them interpret the results and potentially locate the missing woman. Schiele compared the DNA results with public records to help find Melissa Highsmith.
“I was able to use what we call traditional genealogy to find marriage records and things like that to find where Melissa was right now,” Schiele told KSTP. “At first glance, you look at these matches, but I’m like, ‘Holy cow, is this too good to be true?’ I’m very happy to help them navigate all of this.”
One of Melissa’s sisters, Sharon Highsmith, stated that her mother experienced deep feelings of guilt after Melissa’s abduction and had even faced accusations that she had something to do with the disappearance of her daughter.
“My mom did the best she could with the limited resources she had. She couldn’t risk getting fired, so she trusted the person who said they’d care for her child,” Sharon said in a family statement. “I’m grateful we have vindication for my mom,” The Guardian reported.
“I keep having to pinch myself to make sure I’m awake,” Melissa, who now resides in Fort Worth, told KSTP.
“It’s a miracle,” Apantenco said.
“A Christmas miracle,” Melissa added.
Due to the statute of limitations, which expired 20 years after Melissa turned 18, the babysitter who allegedly took Melissa cannot be criminally prosecuted.
“I’m angry our family was robbed for 51 years,’’ Melissa told Fort Worth news station WFAA.
This remarkable story illustrates how clinical laboratory skills combined with genetic testing results can be used outside of medical laboratory testing purposes to aid in solving criminal cases and other mysteries involving missing people.
Further advances in DNA testing combined with genetic databases that include DNA from greater numbers of people could result in more reunions involving missing persons who were identified because of genetic matching.
From point-of-care diagnostic tests to ancestral DNA home-testing, this company’s spit tubes are used by more medical laboratories than any other brand
Most clinical laboratory specialists know that OraSure Technologies of Bethlehem, Pa., was the first company to develop a rapid point-of-care DNA diagnostic test for HIV back in the 1990s. This was a big deal. It meant physicians could test patients during office visits and receive the results while the patients were still in the office. Since many patients fail to follow through on doctors’ test orders, this also meant physicians were diagnosing more patients with HIV than ever before.
Today, OraSure is the dominant company in the spit tube
industry. OraSure claims its tubes contain patented chemical preservatives that
can maintain the specimen’s integrity for up to two years at room temperature.
That’s a long time. And this one feature has made OraSure popular with
direct-to-consumer (DTC) genetic home-test developers.
OraSure provides nearly all of the specimen receptacles used
by individuals searching for their ancestral roots. It’s estimated that about
90% of the DTC genetic-testing market uses the company’s spit tubes. This is
partly because OraSure makes the only tubes approved by the US Food and Drug
Administration (FDA) for home DNA-testing purposes.
To use the saliva-testing DNA kits, an individual first
spits into the tube and then snaps the cap on the tube shut. This action
perforates a membrane which contains a patented, chemical mix of preservatives.
These chemicals help preserve the sample and minimize contamination from
non-human DNA that may be present.
“You’ve got to make it as easy as possible for a person to
spit in the tube, close the tube, recap the tube, and send it to you without
any variation,” Stephen
Tang, PhD, President and Chief Executive Officer at OraSure, told Bloomberg.
Saliva samples are very susceptible to environmental factors
like temperature and are extremely time sensitive. They need to be properly
handled and stored to prevent any degradation and ensure the most accurate test
results. Once in the spit tube, a saliva sample can last more than two years at
room temperature, according to the company.
“That’s the secret,” Tang stated. “Saliva is not pure. It’s
got a lot of bacteria and other stuff swimming in it.”
OraSure reported the company made $182 million in revenue in
2018, with about $20 million of that amount being profit. DNA Genotek, Inc., a subsidiary of OraSure
designed the T-shaped spit tubes being used for consumer-DNA testing kits.
Other Clinical Laboratory Uses for Specimen-Collection Devices
In addition to the consumer-DNA industry, OraSure’s tube technology is used in clinical and academic laboratory situations as well as in veterinary DNA testing. The company is focused on expanding the uses for their specimen-collection technology. They have recently begun using their technology to collect urine specimens for diagnosing sexually transmitted diseases and other conditions. OraSure also has added devices for feces collection, to better compete in the developing field of microbiome for gut bacteria analysis.
“We are all about the integrity of the sample collection,”
Tang says. “It’s a wide-open field.”
Ancestry Sued by OraSure
In 2017, Ancestry.com agreed to pay OraSure $12.5 million to
settle a lawsuit which alleged the company had copied OraSure’s patented DNA
testing technology to produce their own saliva-based DNA test.
According to the lawsuit, Ancestry.com purchased saliva test
kits from DNA Genotek in 2012 and 2013 for the purpose of collecting saliva
samples from their customers. In 2013, Ancestry.com filed for a patent of their
own for an improved variation of the kits reportedly without DNA Genotek’s
OraSure also has devices for substance abuse testing,
cryosurgical kits for the testing of skin lesions, and kits for forensic
Maintaining specimen integrity is critical to ensure lab
test results are accurate and reproducible. OraSure’s spit tube technology
solves the problem of preserving specimens while they are transported to
clinical laboratories and other pathology facilities.
Medical laboratory sales reps selected as winners will each receive a $3,000 prize and an expense-paid trip to the Executive War College for the awards ceremony
Never before has the profession of laboratory medicine had a national achievement award for sales professionals who are a primary source of service between their clinical laboratory organizations and the physicians who order medical laboratory tests.