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.
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.
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.
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.
With 100% of the human genome mapped, new genetic diagnostic and disease screening tests may soon be available for clinical laboratories and pathology groups
Utilizing technology developed by two different biotechnology/genetic sequencing companies, an international consortium of genetic scientists claim to have sequenced 100% of the entire human genome, “including the missing parts,” STAT reported. This will give clinical laboratories access to the complete 3.055 billion base pair (bp) sequence of the human genome.
In their published paper, the T2T scientists wrote, “Addressing this remaining 8% of the genome, the Telomere-to-Telomere (T2T) Consortium has finished the first truly complete 3.055 billion base pair (bp) sequence of a human genome, representing the largest improvement to the human reference genome since its initial release.”
Tale of Two Genetic Sequencing Technologies
Humans have a total of 46 chromosomes in 23 pairs that represent tens of thousands of individual genes. Each individual gene consists of numbers of base pairs and there are billions of these base pairs within the human genome. In 2000, scientists estimated that humans have only 30,000 to 35,000 genes, but that number has since been reduced to just above 20,000 genes.
According to STAT, “The work was possible because the Oxford Nanopore and PacBio technologies do not cut the DNA up into tiny puzzle pieces.”
PacBio used HiFi sequencing, which is only a few years old and provides the benefits of both short and long reads. STAT noted that PacBio’s technology “uses lasers to examine the same sequence of DNA again and again, creating a readout that can be highly accurate.” According to the company’s website, “HiFi reads are produced by calling consensus from subreads generated by multiple passes of the enzyme around a circularized template. This results in a HiFi read that is both long and accurate.”
Oxford Nanopore uses electrical current in its sequencing devices. In this technology, strands of base pairs are pressed through a microscopic nanopore one molecule at a time. Those molecules are then zapped with electrical currents to enable scientists to determine what type of molecule they are and, in turn, identify the full strand.
The T2T Consortium acknowledge in their paper that they had trouble with approximately 0.3% of the genome, but that, though there may be a few errors, there are no gaps.
Might New Precision Medicine Therapies Come from T2T Consortium’s Research?
The researchers claim in their paper that the number of known base pairs has grown from 2.92 billion to 3.05 billion and that the number of known genes has increased by 0.4%. Through their research, they also discovered 115 new genes that code for proteins.
The T2T Consortium scientists also noted that the genome they sequenced for their research did not come from a person but rather from a hydatidiform mole, a rare growth that occasionally forms on the inside of a women’s uterus. The hydatidiform occurs when a sperm fertilizes an egg that has no nucleus. As a result, the cells examined for the T2T study contained only 23 chromosomes instead of the full 46 found in most humans.
Although the T2T Consortium’s work is a huge leap forward in the study of the human genome, more research is needed. The consortium plans to publish its findings in a peer-reviewed medical journal. In addition, both PacBio and Oxford Nanopore plan to develop a way to sequence the entire 46 chromosome human genome in the future.
The future of genetic research and gene sequencing is to create technologies that will allow researchers to identify single nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs) that contain longer strings of DNA. Because these SNPs in the human genome correlate with medical conditions and response to specific genetic therapies, advancing knowledge of the genome can ultimately provide beneficial insights that may lead to new genetic tests for medical diagnoses and help medical professionals determine the best, personalized therapies for individual patients.
Experts list the top challenges facing widespread adoption of proteomics in the medical laboratory industry
laboratories find new ways to use mass spectrometry to
analyze clinical specimens, producing results that may be more precise than
test results produced by other methodologies. This is particularly true in the
field of proteomics.
However, though mass spectrometry is highly accurate and
fast, taking only minutes to convert a specimen into a result, it is not fully
automated and requires skilled technologists to operate the instruments.
Thus, although the science of proteomics is advancing
quickly, the average pathology laboratory isn’t likely to be using mass
spectrometry tools any time soon. Nevertheless, medical
laboratory scientists are keenly interested in adapting mass spectrometry
to medical lab test technology for a growing number of assays.
Molly Campbell, Science Writer and Editor in Genomics, Proteomics, Metabolomics, and Biopharma at Technology Networks, asked proteomics experts “what, in their opinion, are the greatest challenges currently existing in proteomics, and how can we look to overcome them?” Here’s a synopsis of their answers:
Lack of High Throughput Impacts Commercialization
Proteomics isn’t as efficient as it needs to be to be
adopted at the commercial level. It’s not as efficient as its cousin genomics. For it to become
sufficiently efficient, manufacturers must be involved.
III, PhD, Professor, Department of Molecular Medicine at Scripps Research California
campus, told Technology
Networks, “One of the complaints from funding agencies is that you can
sequence literally thousands of genomes very quickly, but you can’t do the same
in proteomics. There’s a push to try to increase the throughput of proteomics
so that we are more compatible with genomics.”
For that to happen, Yates says manufacturers need to
continue advancing the technology. Much of the research is happening at
universities and in the academic realm. But with commercialization comes
standardization and quality control.
“It’s always exciting when you go to ASMS [the conference for the American Society
for Mass Spectrometry] to see what instruments or technologies are going to be
introduced by manufacturers,” Yates said.
There are signs that commercialization isn’t far off. SomaLogic, a privately-owned American protein
biomarker discovery and clinical diagnostics company located in Boulder, Colo.,
has reached the commercialization stage for a proteomics assay platform called SomaScan. “We’ll be
able to supplant, in some cases, expensive diagnostic modalities simply from a
blood test,” Roy
Smythe, MD, CEO of SomaLogic, told Techonomy.
Achieving the Necessary Technical Skillset
One of the main reasons mass spectrometry is not more widely
used is that it requires technical skill that not many professionals possess.
“For a long time, MS-based proteomic analyses were technically demanding at
various levels, including sample processing, separation science, MS and the
analysis of the spectra with respect to sequence, abundance and
modification-states of peptides and proteins and false discovery rate
(FDR) considerations,” Ruedi
Aebersold, PhD, Professor of Systems Biology at the Institute of Molecular Systems Biology (IMSB) at
ETH Zurich, told Technology
Aebersold goes on to say that he thinks this specific
challenge is nearing resolution. He says that, by removing the problem created
by the need for technical skill, those who study proteomics will be able to
“more strongly focus on creating interesting new biological or clinical
research questions and experimental design.”
Yates agrees. In a paper titled, “Recent Technical Advances in
Proteomics,” published in F1000 Research, a peer-reviewed open research
publishing platform for scientists, scholars, and clinicians, he wrote, “Mass
spectrometry is one of the key technologies of proteomics, and over the last
decade important technical advances in mass spectrometry have driven an
increased capability of proteomic discovery. In addition, new methods to
capture important biological information have been developed to take advantage
of improving proteomic tools.”
No High-Profile Projects to Stimulate Interest
Genomics had the Human Genome Project
(HGP), which sparked public interest and attracted significant funding. One of
the big challenges facing proteomics is that there are no similarly big,
imagination-stimulating projects. The work is important and will result in
advances that will be well-received, however, the field itself is complex and difficult
Petricoin, PhD, is a professor and co-director of the Center for Applied
Proteomics and Molecular Medicine at George
Mason University. He told Technology
Networks, “the field itself hasn’t yet identified or grabbed onto a
specific ‘moon-shot’ project. For example, there will be no equivalent to the
human genome project, the proteomics field just doesn’t have that.”
He added, “The equipment needs to be in the background and
what you are doing with it needs to be in the foreground, as is what happened
in the genomics space. If it’s just about the machinery, then proteomics will
always be a ‘poor step-child’ to genomics.”
Makarov, PhD, is Director of Research in Life Sciences Mass Spectrometry
(MS) at Thermo Fisher
Scientific. He told Technology
Networks that as mass spectrometry grew into the industry we have today,
“each new development required larger and larger research and development teams
to match the increasing complexity of instruments and the skyrocketing
importance of software at all levels, from firmware to application. All this
extends the cycle time of each innovation and also forces [researchers] to
concentrate on solutions that address the most pressing needs of the scientific
Makarov describes this change as “the increasing democratization of MS,” and says that it “brings with it new requirements for instruments, such as far greater robustness and ease-of-use, which need to be balanced against some aspects of performance.”
Petsalaki, PhD, Group Leader EMBL-EBI, told Technology
Networks there are two related challenges in handling proteomic data.
First, the data is “very sparse” and second “[researchers] have trouble
measuring low abundance proteins.”
Petsalaki notes, “every time we take a measurement, we
sample different parts of the proteome or phosphoproteome and
we are usually missing low abundance players that are often the most important
ones, such as transcription
factors.” She added that in her group they take steps to mitigate those
“However, with the advances in MS technologies developed by
many companies and groups around the world … and other emerging technologies
that promise to allow ‘sequencing’ proteomes, analogous to genomes … I expect
that these will not be issues for very long.”
So, what does all this mean for clinical laboratories? At the
current pace of development, its likely assays based on proteomics could become
more common in the near future. And, if throughput and commercialization ever
match that of genomics, mass spectrometry and other proteomics tools could
become a standard technology for pathology laboratories.
This may provide opportunities for clinical laboratories. However, some experts are concerned that genetic sequencing may not be equally available to patients of all socioeconomic classes. Nor is it clear how health systems plan to pay for the equipment and services, since health insurance companies continue to deny coverage for “elective” gene sequencing, or when there is not a “clear medical reason for it, such as for people with a long family history of cancer,” notes STAT.
Therefore, not everyone is convinced of the value of gene sequencing to either patients or hospitals, even though advocates tout gene sequencing as a key element of precision medicine.
Is Preventative Genetic Sequencing Ready for the Masses?
Brigham’s Preventive Genomics Clinic offers comprehensive DNA sequencing, interpretation, and risk reporting to both adults and children. And MGH “plans to launch its own clinic for adults that will offer elective sequencing at a similar price range as the Brigham,” STAT reported.
The Brigham and MGH already offer similar gene sequencing services as other large health systems, such as Mayo Clinic and University of California San Francisco (UCSF), which are primarily used for research and cancer diagnoses and range in price depending on the depth of the scan, interpretation of the results, and storage options.
However, some experts question whether offering the
technology to consumers for preventative purposes will benefit anyone other
than a small percentage of patients.
“It’s clearly not been demonstrated to be cost-effective to promote this on a societal basis,” Robert Green, MD, MPH, medical geneticist at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, and professor of genetics at Harvard, told STAT. “The question that’s hard to answer is whether there are long-term benefits that justify those healthcare costs—whether the sequencing itself, the physician visit, and any downstream testing that’s stimulated will be justified by the situations where you can find and prevent disease.”
Additionally, large medical centers typically charge more
for genomic scans than consumer companies such as 23andMe and Ancestry. Hospital-based
sequencing may be out of the reach of many consumers, and this concerns some
“The idea that genomic sequencing is only going to be
accessible by wealthy, well-educated patrons who can pay out of pocket is
anathema to the goals of the publicly funded Human Genome Project,” Jonathan
Berg, MD, PhD, Genetics Professor, University of North Carolina at Chapel
Hill, told Scientific
And, according to the American Journal of Managed Care, “It’s estimated that by 2021, 100 million people will have used a direct-to-consumer (DTC) genetic test. As these tests continue to gain popularity, there is a need for educating consumers on their DTC testing results and validating these results with confirmatory testing in a medical-grade laboratory.”
This is why it’s critical that clinical laboratories and
anatomic pathology groups have a genetic testing and gene sequencing strategy,
David Bick, MD, Chief Medical Officer at the HudsonAlpha Institute for Biotechnology and Medical Director of the Smith Family Clinic for Genomic Medicine, told Scientific American, “there’s just more and more interest from patients and families not only because of 23andMe and the like, but because there’s just this understanding that if you can find out information about your health before you become sick, then really our opportunity as physicians to do something to help you is much greater.”
Is Preventative Genomics Elitist?
As large medical centers penetrate the consumer genetic
testing market some experts express concerns. In a paper he wrote for Medium,
titled, “Is Preventive Genomics Elitist?” Green asked, “Is a service like this
further widening the inequities in our healthcare system?”
Green reported that while building the Preventive Genomics Clinic at Brigham, “we … struggled with the reality that there is no health insurance coverage for preventive genomic testing, and our patients must therefore pay out of pocket. This is a troubling feature for a clinic at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, which is known for its ties to communities in Boston with diverse ethnic and socioeconomic backgrounds.”
Most of Brigham’s early genetics patients would likely be “well-off,
well-educated, and largely white,” Green wrote. “This represents the profile of
typical early adopters in genetic medicine, and in technology writ large. It
does not, however, represent the Clinic’s ultimate target audience.”
More Data for Clinical Laboratories
Nevertheless, preventive genomics programs offered by large
health systems will likely grow as primary care doctors and others see evidence
Therefore, medical laboratories that process genetic
sequencing data may soon be working with growing data sets as more people reach
out to healthcare systems for comprehensive DNA sequencing and reporting.
The National Institute of Health’s ClinVar public database of genetic variation is demonstrating good accuracy, and a handful of clinical labs are learning to share and review this relatively small genetic database
Accessible databases like ClinVar, which was launched by the National Institute of Health (NIH) in 2013, have emerged to aggregate genetic sequencing with acceptable results. ClinVar exists to meet the needs of the medical genetics community. It collaborates with organizations to make pertinent genetic information available.
ClinVar is an archive of compiled data relating to genotype and phenotype variations among humans. Through this database, individuals can present and peruse submissions regarding variants found in patient samples.
ClinVar is averaging about 6,000 submissions per month by both commercial laboratory companies and reference labs. Major contributors to the database include: (more…)