Researchers at the university suggested their findings could lead to new genetic tests that could be offered by medical laboratories
New research conducted at the University of Utah suggests that clinical laboratories may someday be able to deploy genetic tests to indicate whether a couple has a higher-than-average risk of stillbirth.
This is yet another example of how researchers are cracking DNA’s code to understand how certain gene variants may affect the healthcare of offspring. The knowledge produced by this research, as confirmed by additional studies, may lead to genetic markers that medical laboratories can use to diagnose the risk of stillbirth using the parent’s DNA.
“Stillbirth is one of those problems that is so tragic and life-changing,” said study co-author Jessica Page, MD (above). “It is especially frustrating when you don’t have a good answer for why it happens. This knowledge may give us the opportunity to change how we risk stratify people and reduce their risk through prevention.” Should this research be validated, clinical laboratories may soon have new genetics tests to help doctors identify risk for stillbirth. (Photo copyright: Intermountain Healthcare.)
“Stillbirth rate reduction has been slow in the US and we think many stillbirths may be potentially preventable,” she said in a university press release. “This is motivating us to look for those genetic factors so we can achieve more dramatic rate reduction.”
According to the press release, the University of Utah researchers found that stillbirth “can be inherited and tends to be passed down through male members of the family. That risk preferentially comes from the mother’s or father’s male relatives—their brothers, fathers, grandfathers, uncles, or male cousins. But the odds of a couple losing a baby to stillbirth are even greater when the condition comes from the father’s side of the family.”
The researchers made this discovery by analyzing data from the Utah Population Database (UPDB), which contains information on eight million people who were born in the state or have other connections there. The database is maintained by the Huntsman Cancer Institute at the University of Utah. It includes genealogical information and health records that allowed the researchers to trace incidence of stillbirths across multiple generations of families.
The researchers examined 9,404 stillbirth cases between 1978 and 2019, along with 18,808 live births that served as controls. They identified 390 multi-generational families with high numbers of stillbirths. Within that group, they looked at incidence of stillbirth among first-, second-, and third-degree relatives of stillborn babies. They then compared those numbers with data from unaffected families.
“We were able to evaluate multigenerational trends in fetal death as well as maternal and paternal lineages to increase our ability to detect a familial aggregation of stillbirth,” said genetic epidemiologist Tsegaselassie Workalemahu, PhD, lead author of the study. “Not many studies have examined inherited genetic risk for stillbirth because of a lack of data. The Utah Population Database allows for a more rigorous evaluation than has been possible in the past.”
Workalemahu described the research as “an important step toward identifying specific genes that increase the risk of stillbirth, which could one day lead to better diagnosis and prevention,” according to the university press release.
One caveat, the press release notes, is that Utah’s population is disproportionately of northern European descent. “Future studies will need to determine whether the trends hold true among people of different races and ethnicities,” it stated.
Call for More Testing
The University of Utah study is part of a larger effort to gain a greater understanding of the causes of stillbirths.
The story notes that “more than 20,000 pregnancies in the US end in stillbirth,” and in one in three of those cases, the cause is not determined.
Drucilla Roberts, MD, an obstetric and perinatal pathologist at Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH), told ProPublica that at a minimum, “the placenta should definitely be evaluated in every stillbirth.” But citing CDC data, the story notes that this is done in only 65% of stillbirths, and autopsies are performed in less than 20%.
“Experts blame the low rates on several factors,” the story states. “Because an autopsy often is performed in the days following a stillbirth, doctors and nurses have to ask families soon after they receive news of the death if they would like one. Many families can’t process the loss, let alone imagine their baby’s body being cut open. What’s more, many doctors aren’t trained in the advantages of an autopsy, or in communicating with parents about the exam.”
One consequence, ProPublica notes, is that clinicians are ill-equipped to advise patients on how to reduce risk in future pregnancies. The story describes the case of Karen Gibbins, MD, a maternal-fetal medicine specialist and an assistant professor of obstetrics and gynecology at the Oregon Health and Science University (OHSU) in Portland.
An Opportunity for Pathologists
Gibbins’ son was stillborn in 2018. She asked for an autopsy and learned that her son “had a rare disease caused by her antibodies attacking the cells in his liver,” the story states. When she became pregnant again, her doctor prescribed antibody infusions and she later gave birth to a healthy son. “If we had not had that autopsy, my third child would have died as well,” she told ProPublica.
This parent’s comment about the value of the autopsy done after her son’s stillbirth identifies an opportunity for the pathology profession. For several decades, health plans have become ever more reluctant to pay for autopsies. Yet, pathologists know the value that autopsies can provide.
The immediate value comes from revealing useful insights about all the health conditions of the deceased. The long-term value comes from the ability to gather the findings across a large number of autopsies that can contribute to new knowledge about health conditions that physicians use to improve the diagnoses of different health conditions.
Thus, with the publication of this peer-reviewed study about the connection between genetic variations and stillbirth, there is the opportunity for some of the nation’s pathology societies to advocate for funding a pilot program to fund more autopsies of stillborn babies, specifically to add more knowledge about the role of gene mutations as a causative factor in stillbirths.
Experts say it is time ‘to restore our confidence in vaccines’ as many medical laboratories take steps to support testing for the polio virus
Clinical laboratories and microbiologists in the state of New York will want to know that, in July, a man in New York was diagnosed with polio and subsequently the virus was detected in the wastewater of two New York counties.
The area, Rockland County, N.Y., just north of New York City, was also at the forefront of a measles outbreak that occurred in 2018 and 2019. The outbreak was attributed to low vaccination rates within the community.
The unidentified, immunocompetent young man was admitted to a New York hospital after experiencing a low-grade fever, neck stiffness, back and abdominal pain, constipation, and lower extremity weakness. He eventually developed paralysis from the disease, which is irreversible.
Poliomyelitis, commonly known as polio, is a disabling and life-threatening disease that is caused by the poliovirus. Though it rarely surfaces in the United States, there is now confirmation of the first US case since 2013.
“The polio vaccine is safe and effective, protecting against this potentially debilitating disease, and it has been part of the backbone of required, routine childhood immunizations recommended by health officials and public health agencies nationwide,” said Mary T. Bassett, MD (left), Health Commissioner at the New York Department of Health, in a press release. Clinical laboratories and microbiologists in New York may want to prepare for an increase in vaccination requests. (Photo copyright: Time.)
Is Polio Back in America? Clinical Laboratories Will Want to Be Prepared
According to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), public health experts are working diligently to discover how and where the infected individual contracted polio. The CDC website states that the risk for people who have received the polio vaccine is very low, but there is concern for those who have not received the recommended doses of the vaccine.
“Most of the US population has protection against polio because they were vaccinated during childhood, but in some communities with low vaccine coverage, there are unvaccinated people at risk,” the CDC noted. “Polio and its neurologic effects cannot be cured but can be prevented through vaccination.”
The US uses an injectable polio vaccine for the poliovirus which contains killed viruses. The vaccine “instructs” the immune system to recognize and combat the virus. This inactivated polio vaccine (IPV) is administered to children as a shot in the arm or leg and is typically given in four separate doses.
“The inactivated polio vaccine we have is very effective and very safe and could have prevented this,” Orenstein told STAT. “We need to restore our confidence in vaccines.”
“Based on what we know about this case, and polio in general, the (New York) Department of Health strongly recommends that unvaccinated individuals get vaccinated or boosted with the FDA-approved IPV polio vaccine as soon as possible,” said Mary T. Bassett, MD, Health Commissioner at the New York Department of Health in a press release.
Poliovirus Found in Wastewater via Use of Gene Sequencing
Poliovirus is very contagious and is transmitted through person-to-person contact. The virus lives in an infected person’s throat and intestines and can contaminate food and water in unsanitary conditions. According to the CDC, typical symptoms of the illness include flu-like symptoms such as:
Most of these symptoms will disappear within five days, but polio can invade the nervous system and cause more serious complications, such as meningitis, paralysis, and even death.
After confirmation of the new case of polio, wastewater surveillance detected the presence of the poliovirus in Rockland and Orange counties, New York.
Wastewater analysis can uncover pathogens within a community and has been used in the fight against other infectious diseases, including:
“In some regards, wastewater is a public health dream scenario,” said Mark Siedner, MD, an infectious disease doctor at Massachusetts General Hospital and associate professor at Harvard Medical School, in an interview with Fortune. “Everyone poops, and most people poop every day. It provides real-time data on infection rates. In that regard, it’s an extremely powerful tool, particularly good at detecting early warning signs. Before people get sick, we might get a signal.”
Wastewater analysis can provide insights regarding the types of viruses that people within a community are shedding and if the volume of those viruses are increasing. This information can provide scientists with an early marker for an outbreak of an illness that is on the verge of spreading.
Microbiologists and clinical laboratories should be aware of the specific types of infectious agents public health authorities are detecting in wastewater, even as they perform screening and diagnostic tests on their patients for similar infectious diseases.
Polio is Appearing Worldwide
The Global Polio Eradication Initiative (GPEI) has announced that new cases of polio have been reported in Israel and the United Kingdom. These are countries where polio cases are extremely rare.
This indicates that microbiologists and clinical laboratories managers will want to be on constant alert for uncommon infectious diseases that may appear suddenly, even if those illnesses are rare. Accurate and immediate diagnoses of such infectious diseases could play a major role in triggering a public health response to control potential outbreaks while they are in their earlier stages.
Breakthrough assay a ‘tenfold improvement over any prior assay for TERT mutations in the blood for brain tumors,’ MGH says in an affirmation of a diagnostic technology clinical labs might soon use
In recent years, investors have poured tens of millions of dollars into companies that promised to create non-invasive cancer tests which use liquid biopsy technology. Medical laboratory scientists even watched some of these companies hype their particular liquid biopsy tests before clinical studies generated data demonstrating that these tests produced accurate, reliable, and reproducible results.
For diagnosing cancer, a liquid biopsy test typically uses a blood sample with the goal of finding and identifying circulating tumor cells. Harvard Medical School researchers at Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH) believe they have developed just such a blood test. Their assay utilizes an enhanced form of liquid biopsy to detect and monitor one of the more prevalent types of brain tumor in adults—a glioma—and, according to a Harvard news release, can detect the presence of glioma at a significantly higher “overall sensitivity” than other similar liquid-biopsy tests.
Gliomas start in glia cells contained in the brain or spine. They account for about 30% of all brain and central nervous system tumors and 80% of all malignant brain tumors.
During their study, MGH researchers compared blood samples and tumor biopsy tissues from patients diagnosed with a glioma. They discovered that an assay they developed—a droplet digital polymerase chain reaction (ddPCR) blood test—could detect and monitor two types of telomerase reverse transcriptase (TERT) promoter gene mutations—C228T and C250T. These two gene mutations promote cancer growth and are present in more than 60% of all gliomas. The mutations are also present in 80% of all high-grade gliomas, which are the most aggressive and life-threatening types of the cancer.
In the press release, instructor in Neurosurgery at MGH and one of the study’s authors, Leonora Balaj, PhD, said, “By ‘supercharging’ our ddPCR assay with novel technical improvements, we showed for the first time that the most prevalent mutation in malignant gliomas can be detected in blood, opening a new landscape for detection and monitoring of the tumors.”
MGH’s Ten-Fold Improvement over Previous ddPCR Assays
A liquid biopsy is the sampling and analysis of non-solid tissue in the body—primarily blood. MGH’s liquid-biopsy method detects cancer by examining fragments of tumor DNA circulating in the bloodstream. Since the technique is mostly non-invasive, tests can be performed more frequently to track tumors and mutations and monitor treatment progression. Prior to this new method, brain tumors had been difficult to detect using liquid biopsies.
“Liquid biopsy is particularly challenging in brain tumors because mutant DNA is shed into the bloodstream at a much lower level than any other types of tumors,” Balaj said in the press release.
However, MGH’s new ddPCR assay has an overall sensitivity rate of 62.5% and a specificity of 90%, which represents a tenfold improvement over prior assays for TERT mutations in the blood.
And when testing the performance of the ddPCR assay in tumor tissue, the MGH researchers discovered their results were the same as results from a previous independently-performed clinical laboratory assessment of TERT mutations within collected tumor specimens. They also found that their assay could detect TERT mutations when looking at blood plasma samples collected at other facilities.
The researchers believe that their test could be performed in most clinical laboratories and can be utilized to follow the course of disease in cancer patients. The MGH researcher’s goal is to expand and adapt the blood test to diagnose, differentiate, and monitor other types of brain tumors in addition to gliomas.
Of course, more research will be needed before MGH’s new assay can become a vital tool in the fight against disease. However, this type of genetic analysis may soon provide pathologists with new techniques to more accurately diagnose and monitor cancers, and to provide healthcare providers with valuable data regarding which therapies would be the most beneficial for individual patients, a key element of precision medicine.
Clinical laboratories involved in genetic testing may find this welcomed news, after a pair of studies conducted in 2019 raised concerns about CRISPR base editing. The researchers of those studies observed that it “causes a high number of unpredictable mutations in mouse embryos and rice,” Chemical and Engineering News (C&EN) reported, adding, “Other groups have raised concerns about off-target mutations caused when the traditional CRISPR-Cas9 form of gene editing cuts DNA at a location that it wasn’t supposed to touch. The results of the new studies are surprising, however, because scientists have lauded base editors as one of the most precise forms of gene editing yet.”
Nevertheless, UC Berkeley’s latest breakthrough is expected to drive development of new and more accurate CRISPR-Cas genome-editing tools, which consist of base editors as well as nucleases, transposases, recombinases, and prime editors.
“While base editors are now widely used to introduce precise changes in organisms ranging from bacteria to plants to primates, no one has previously observed the three-dimensional molecular structure of a base editor,” he said in a UC Berkeley news release. “This collaborative project reveals the beautiful molecular structure of a state-of-the-art highly-active base editor—ABE8e—caught in the act of engaging a target DNA site.”
CRISPR-Cas9 gene editing allows scientists to permanently edit the genetic information of any organism, including human cells, and has been used in agriculture as well as medicine. A base editor is a tool that manipulates a gene by binding to DNA and replacing one nucleotide with another.
According to the recent UC Berkeley news release, the research team used a “high-powered imaging technique called cryo-electron microscopy” to reveal the base editor’s 3D shape.
Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology News notes that, “The high-resolution structure is of ABE8e bound to DNA, in which the target adenine is replaced with an analog designed to trap the catalytic conformation. The structure, together with kinetic data comparing ABE8e to earlier ABEs [adenine base editors], explains how ABE8e edits DNA bases and could inform future base-editor design.”
Knowing the Cas9 fusion protein’s 3D structure may help eliminate unintended off-target effects on RNA, extending beyond the targeted DNA. However, until now, scientists have been hampered by their inability to understand the base editor’s structure.
“If you really want to design truly specific fusion protein, you have to find a way to make the catalytic domain more a part of Cas9, so that it would sense when Cas9 is on the correct target and only then get activated, instead of being active all the time,” study co-first author Audrone Lapinaite, PhD, said in the news release. At the time of the study, Lapinaite was a postdoctoral fellow at UC Berkeley. She is now an assistant professor at Arizona State University.
“As a structural biologist, I really want to look at a molecule and think about ways to rationally improve it. This structure and accompanying biochemistry really give us that power,” added UC Berkeley postdoctoral fellow Gavin Knott, PhD, another study co-author. “We can now make rational predications for how this system will behave in a cell, because we can see it and predict how it’s going to break or predict ways to make it better.”
Clinical laboratory leaders and pathologists will want to monitor these new advances in CRISPR technology. Each breakthrough has the power to fuel development of cost-effective, rapid point-of-care diagnostics.
The KCL researchers’ new models for predicting which patients will need hospitalization and breathing support may be useful for pathologists and clinical laboratory scientists
One more window into understanding the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus may have just opened. A British study identified six distinct “clusters” of symptoms that the research scientists believe may help predict which patients diagnosed with COVID-19 will require hospitalization and respiratory support. If further research confirms these early findings, pathologists and medical laboratory managers may gain new tools to diagnose infections faster and more accurately.
Launched in March in the United Kingdom and extended to the United States and Sweden, the app has attracted more than four million users who track their health and potential COVID symptoms on a daily basis.
Increased Accuracy in Predicting COVID-19 Hospitalizations
KCL researchers identified six distinct “types” of COVID-19, each distinguished by a particular cluster of symptoms. They include headaches, muscle pains, fatigue, diarrhea, confusion, loss of appetite, shortness of breath, and more. The researchers also found that COVID-19 disease progression and outcome also vary significantly between people, ranging from mild flu-like symptoms or a simple rash to severe or fatal conditions.
Using app data logged by 1,600 users in March and April, the researchers developed an algorithm that combined information on age, gender, body mass index (BMI), and pre-existing conditions with recorded symptoms from the onset of the illness through the first five days. The researchers then tested the algorithm using a second independent dataset of 1,000 users, logged in May.
In a news release, the KCL researchers identified the six clusters of symptoms as:
Flu-like with No Fever: Headache, loss of smell, muscle pains, cough, sore throat, chest pain, no fever.
Flu-like with Fever: Headache, loss of smell, cough, sore throat, hoarseness, fever, loss of appetite.
Gastrointestinal: Headache, loss of smell, loss of appetite, diarrhea, sore throat, chest pain, no cough.
Severe Level One, Fatigue: Headache, loss of smell, cough, fever, hoarseness, chest pain, fatigue.
Severe Level Two, Confusion: Headache, loss of smell, loss of appetite, cough, fever, hoarseness, sore throat, chest pain, fatigue, confusion, muscle pain.
Severe Level Three, Abdominal and Respiratory: Headache, loss of smell, loss of appetite, cough, fever, hoarseness, sore throat, chest pain, fatigue, confusion, muscle pain, shortness of breath, diarrhea, abdominal pain.
Using the data, the researchers were able to more accurately predict—78.8% versus 69.5%—which of the six symptom clusters placed patients at higher risk of requiring hospitalization and breathing support (ventilation or additional oxygen) than with prediction models based on personal characteristics alone. For example, nearly 50% of the patients in cluster six (Severe Level Three, Abdominal and Respiratory) ended up in the hospital, compared with 16% of those in cluster one (Flu-like with No Fever).
According to the Zoe website, the ongoing research is led by:
Prof. Tim Spector, FMedSci, Professor of Genetic Epidemiology at King’s College London and Director of TwinsUK, an adult registry of twins in the United Kingdom;
Andrew Chan, MD, Professor of Medicine at Harvard Medical School, Professor of Immunology and Infectious Diseases, Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health and Chief of the Clinical and Translational Epidemiology Unit, CTEU Massachusetts General Hospital; and
Encouraging Everyone to Use the COVID-Symptom Study App
The study points out that—broadly speaking—people with cluster four, five, or six COVID-19 symptoms tended to be older and frailer and were more likely to be overweight and have pre-existing conditions, such as diabetes or lung disease, than those with cluster one, two, or three symptoms.
Tim Spector, FMedSci, Head of the Department of Twin Research and Genetic Epidemiology, and Professor of Genetic Epidemiology at King’s College London, encourages everyone to download the COVID Symptom Study app and help increase the data available to researchers.
“Data is our most powerful tool in the fight against COVID-19,” Spector said in the KCL news release. “We urge everyone to get in the habit of using the app daily to log their health over the coming months, helping us to stay ahead of any local hotspots or a second wave of infections.”
As the body of knowledge surrounding COVID-19 grows, clinical laboratory professionals would be well advised to remain informed on further research regarding not only the potential for COVID-19 variants to exist, but also the evolving guidance on infection prevention and testing.