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Clinical Laboratories and Pathology Groups

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History of the Clinical Laboratory Critical Values Reporting System

Development of the Critical Values system redefined what STAT means in clinical laboratory testing turnaround times

Where did the concept of critical values and having clinical laboratories report them to referring physicians originate? How did the concept blossom into a standard practice in laboratory medicine? Given the importance of critical values, a lookback into how this aspect of laboratory medicine was developed is helpful to understand how and why this has become an essential element in the practice of medicine and an opportunity for labs to add value in patient care.

According to Stanford Medicine, critical/panic values are defined as “values that are outside the normal range to a degree that may constitute an immediate health risk to the individual or require immediate action on the part of the ordering physician.”

In an article he penned for the National Medical Journal of India, George Lundberg, MD, Editor-at-Large at Medscape, states that the practice of reporting critical values originated with a case that occurred in 1969 at the Los Angeles County-University of Southern California Medical Center. Lundberg is also Editor-in-Chief at Cancer Commons, President and Chair of the Board of Directors of the Lundberg Institute, and a clinical professor of pathology at Northwestern University.

What you’ll read below is an insider’s account of the “birth of critical values reporting.”

According to Lundberg, an unaccompanied man was brought to the hospital in a coma and an examination revealed a laceration to his scalp. The patient was admitted to the neurosurgical unit where clinical laboratory tests were performed, including a complete blood count (CBC) analysis, urinalysis, and serum electrolytes. All the test results came back normal except the patient’s serum glucose (blood sugar level) which was 6 mg% in concentration.

“The hard-copy laboratory results were returned to the ward of origin within two hours of receipt of the specimens in the laboratory. However, the results were not noticed by the house officers who were busy with several other seriously ill patients. Ward personnel also failed to communicate the lab results to the responsible physicians,” Lundberg wrote.

When hospital staff did finally notice the test result the next morning glucose was immediately administered to the patient, but it was too late to prevent irreversible brain damage. The man soon passed away.

Following this incident, the hospital developed a “Critical Value Recognition and Reporting System.” The system generated new numbers that were termed “Panic Values.” 

However, “critics complained that good doctors should never panic, so the name was changed to Critical Values,” Lundberg explained.

When any of these critical test values were out of the norm, “we required the responsible laboratory person to quickly verify the result and use the telephone (long before laboratory computers) to personally notify a responsible individual (no messages left) who agreed to find a physician who could quickly act on the result. All was documented with times and names,” he wrote. 

“We understand that when a physician wants something, he/she wants it, no matter what. Well, in this patient-focused approach, the physician cannot have it, except as offered by the patient-focused approach, based on TAT [turnaround times of clinical laboratory tests],” wrote George Lundberg, MD (above), President and Chair of the Board of Directors of the Lundberg Institute, and Clinical Professor of Pathology at Northwestern University in an article he penned for the National Medical Journal of India (Photo copyright: Dark Intelligence Group. Shows Dr. Lundberg in 2011 addressing the Executive War College on Diagnostics, Clinical Laboratory, and Pathology Management.)

New Clinical Laboratory Standards

Recognition of the urgency to adopt new hospital standards related to certain clinical laboratory test results came swiftly. In 1972, Lundberg was invited to publish an article explaining the new Critical Value Recognition and Reporting System in Medical Laboratory Observer

“Within weeks, laboratories all over the USA adopted their own version of the system,” Lundberg wrote in his National Medical Journal of India (NMJI) article. “The test chosen, and critical values, were established by each medical staff. … A critical value system quickly became standard of practice as required by the College of American Pathologists (CAP) Laboratory Accreditation Program and the Joint Commission on Accreditation of Hospitals.”

According to Lundberg, “most laboratory tests that are done do not need to be done; the results are either negative, normal, or show no change from a prior result. But some are crucial.”

The original set of Critical Values included the following testing results:

The list of values were later expanded to include “vital values.” These values describe lab results for which “action” is important, but where timing is less urgent. Examples of vital values include:

STAT Lab Orders Redefined

Lundberg and his colleagues went on to redefine what constitutes a laboratory test and what renders a test successful. They discussed laboratory procedures with committees of clinicians, lab personnel and patients, and reorganized hematology, chemistry, and toxicology based on the turnaround time (TAT) of tests.

“We ‘started the clock’—any and all days/times 24×7—when a specimen arrived at some place within the laboratory, and stopped the clock when a final result was available somewhere in the laboratory,” Lundberg wrote in NMJI. “We categorized all tests as: less than one hour, less than four hours, less than 24 hours, and more than 24 hours, guaranteed, 24×7. As a trade-off, we abolished the concept of ‘STAT’ orders … NO EXCEPTIONS. The rationale of each TAT was the speed with which a result was needed to render proper medical care that mattered to the welfare of the patient, and, of course, that was technically possible.”

Since then, very little has changed for the Critical Values System over the past 50 years. The majority of values added have fallen under the “Vital” category and not the “Critical” category. Today, most health systems and clinical laboratories create their own internal processes and procedures regarding which values need to be reported immediately (critical), which values are not urgent (vital), and how those results should be handled.

—JP Schlingman

Related Information:

The Origin and Evolution of Critical Laboratory Values

Critical Values

Critical Laboratory Values Communication: Summary Recommendations from Available Guidelines

Rice University Researchers Are Developing an Implantable Cancer Therapeutic Device That May Reduce Cancer Deaths by Half

Immunotherapy device could also enable clinical laboratories to receive in vivo biomarker data wirelessly

Researchers from Rice University in Houston and seven other states in the US are working on a new oncotherapy sense-and-respond implant that could dramatically improve cancer outcomes. Called Targeted Hybrid Oncotherapeutic Regulation (THOR), the technology is intended primarily for the delivery of therapeutic drugs by monitoring specific cancer biomarkers in vivo.

Through a $45 million federal grant from the Advanced Research Projects Agency for Health (ARPA-H), the researchers set out to develop an immunotherapy implantable device that monitors a patient’s cancer and adjusts antibody treatment dosages in real time in response to the biomarkers it measures.

It’s not a far stretch to envision future versions of the THOR platform also being used diagnostically to measure biomarker data and transmit it wirelessly to clinical laboratories and anatomic pathologists.

ARPH-A is a federal funding agency that was established in 2022 to support the development of high-impact research to drive biomedical and health breakthroughs. THOR is the second program to receive funding under its inaugural Open Broad Agency Announcement solicitation for research proposals. 

“By integrating a self-regulated circuit, the THOR technology can adjust the dose of immunotherapy reagents based on a patient’s responses,” said Weiyi Peng, MD, PhD (above), Assistant Professor of Biology and Biochemistry at the University of Houston and co-principal investigator on the research, in a UH press release. “With this new feature, THOR is expected to achieve better efficacy and minimize immune-related toxicity. We hope this personalized immunotherapy will revolutionize treatments for patients with peritoneal cancers that affect the liver, lungs, and other organs.” If anatomic pathologists and clinical laboratories could receive biometric data from the THOR device, that would be a boon to cancer diagnostics. (Photo copyright: University of Houston.)

Antibody Therapy on Demand

Omid Veiseh, PhD, Associate Professor of Bioengineering at Rice University and principal investigator on the project, described the THOR device as a “living drug factory” inside the body. The device is a rod-like gadget that contains onboard electronics and a wireless rechargeable battery. It is three inches long and has a miniaturized bioreactor that contains human epithelial cells that have been engineered to produce immune modulating therapies.

“Instead of tethering patients to hospital beds, IV bags, and external monitors, we’ll use a minimally invasive procedure to implant a small device that continuously monitors their cancer and adjusts their immunotherapy dose in real time,” said Veiseh in a Rice University press release. “This kind of ‘closed-loop therapy’ has been used for managing diabetes, where you have a glucose monitor that continuously talks to an insulin pump.

But for cancer immunotherapy, it’s revolutionary.”

The team believes the THOR device will have the ability to monitor biomarkers and produce an antibody on demand that will trigger the immune system to fight cancer locally. They hope the sensor within THOR will be able to monitor biomarkers of toxicity for the purpose of fine-tuning therapies to a patient immediately in response to signals from a tumor. 

“Today, cancer is treated a bit like a static disease, which it’s not,” Veiseh said. “Clinicians administer a therapy and then wait four to six weeks to do radiological measurements to see if the therapy is working. You lose quite a lot of time if it’s not the right therapy. The tumor may have evolved into a more aggressive form.”

The THOR device lasts 60 days and can be removed after that time. It is designed to educate the immune system to recognize a cancer and prevent it from recurring. If the cancer is not fully eradicated after the first implantation, the patient can be implanted with THOR again. 

Use of AI in THOR Therapy

The researchers plan to spend the next two and a half years building prototypes of the THOR device, testing them in rodents, and refining the list of biomarkers to be utilized in the device. Then, they intend to take an additional year to establish protocols for the US Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) good manufacturing practices requirements, and to test the final prototype on large animals. The researchers estimate the first human clinical trials for the device will begin in about four years. 

“The first clinical trial will focus on refractory recurrent ovarian cancer, and the benefit of that is that we have an ongoing trial for ovarian cancer with our encapsulated cytokine ‘drug factory’ technology,” said Veiseh in the UH press release. 

The group is starting with ovarian cancer because research in this area is lacking and it will provide the opportunity for THOR to activate the immune system against ovarian cancer, which is typically challenging to fight with immunotherapy approaches. If successful in ovarian cancer, the researchers hope to test THOR in other cancers that metastasize within the abdomen, such as:

All control and decision-making will initially be performed by a healthcare provider based on signals transmitted by THOR using a computer or smartphone. However, Veiseh sees the device ultimately being powered by artificial intelligence (AI) algorithms that could independently make therapeutic decisions.

“As we treat more and more patients [with THOR], the devices are going to learn what type of biomarker readout better predicts efficacy and toxicity and make adjustments based on that,” he predicted. “Between the information you have from the first patient versus the millionth patient you treat, the algorithm is just going to get better and better.”

Moving Forward

In addition to UH and Rice University, scientists working on the project come from several institutions, including:

More research and clinical trials are needed before THOR can be used in the clinical treatment of cancer patients. If the device reaches the commercialization stage, Veiseh plans to either form a new company or license the technology to an existing company for further development.

“We know that the further we advance it in terms of getting that human data, the more likely it is that this could then be transferred to another entity,” he told Precision Medicine Online.

Pathologists and clinical laboratories will want to monitor the progress of the THOR technology’s ability to sense changes in cancer biomarkers and deliver controlled dosages of antibiotic treatments.

—JP Schlingman

Related Information:

UH Researcher on Team Developing Sense-and-Respond Cancer Implant Technology

Feds Fund $45M Rice-Led Research That Could Slash US Cancer Deaths by 50%

$45M Awarded to Develop Sense-and-Respond Implant Technology for Cancer Treatment

Implantable Oncotherapeutic Bioreactor Device Lands $45M Government Funding

ARPA-H Fast Tracks Development of New Cancer Implant Tech

ARPA-H Announces Funding for Programs to Support Cancer Moonshot Objectives

ARPA-H Fast Tracks Development of New Cancer Implant Tech

Feds Investing Nearly $115 Million in Three New Cancer Technology Research Projects

Hopkins Engineers Join $45M Project to Develop Sense-and-Respond Cancer Implant Technology

ARPA-H Projects Aim to Develop Novel Cancer Technologies

Closed-Loop Insulin Delivery Systems: Past, Present, and Future Directions

Researchers Create Artificial Intelligence Tool That Accurately Predicts Outcomes for 14 Types of Cancer

American Heart Association Announces CKM Syndrome to Describe ‘Strong Connection’ between Multiple Diseases

Newly-defined Cardiovascular-Kidney-Metabolic Syndrome (CKM) means physicians will be in close collaboration with clinical laboratories to make accurate diagnoses

Based on newly-identified “strong connections” between cardiovascular disease (CVD, or heart disease), kidney disease, Type 2 diabetes, and obesity, the American Heart Association (AHA) is calling for a “redefining” of the risk, prevention, and management of CVD, according to an AHA news release.

In a presidential advisory, the AHA defines a newly described systemic health disorder called Cardiovascular-Kidney-Metabolic Syndrome (CKM). The syndrome “is a systemic disorder characterized by pathophysiological interactions among metabolic risk factors, CKD (chronic kidney disease), and the cardiovascular system leading to multi-organ failure and a high rate of adverse cardiovascular outcomes.”

A CKM diagnosis, which is meant to identify patients who are at high risk of dying from heart disease, is based on a combination of risk factors, including:

  • weight problems,
  • issues with blood pressure, cholesterol, and/or blood sugar,
  • reduced kidney function. 

CKM is a new term and doctors will be ordering medical laboratory tests associated with diagnosing patients with multiple symptoms to see if they match this diagnosis. Thus, clinical laboratory managers and pathologists will want to follow the adoption/implementation of this new recommendation.

The AHA published its findings in its journal Circulation titled, “Cardiovascular-Kidney-Metabolic Health: A Presidential Advisory from the American Heart Association.”

“The advisory addresses the connections among these conditions with a particular focus on identifying people at early stages of CKM syndrome,” said Chiadi Ndumele, MD, PhD (above), Associate Professor of Medicine at Johns Hopkins University and one of the authors of the AHA paper, in a news release. “Screening for kidney and metabolic disease will help us start protective therapies earlier to most effectively prevent heart disease and best manage existing heart disease.” Clinical laboratories will play a key role in those screenings and in diagnosis of the new syndrome. (Photo copyright: Johns Hopkins University.)

Stages of CKM Syndrome

In its presidential advisory, the AHA wrote, “Cardiovascular-Kidney-Metabolic (CKM) syndrome is defined as a health disorder attributable to connections among obesity, diabetes, chronic kidney disease (CKD), and cardiovascular disease (CVD), including heart failure, atrial fibrillation, coronary heart disease, stroke, and peripheral artery disease. CKM syndrome includes those at risk for CVD and those with existing CVD.”

The five stages of CKM syndrome, which the AHA provided to give a framework for patients to work towards regression of the syndrome, are:

  • Stage 0: No CKM risk factors. Individuals should be screened every three to five years for blood pressure, cholesterol, and blood sugar levels, and for maintaining a healthy body weight.
  • Stage 1: Excess body fat and/or an unhealthy distribution of body fat, such as abdominal obesity, and/or impaired glucose tolerance or prediabetes. Patients have risk factors such as weight problems or prediabetes and are encouraged to make healthy lifestyle changes and try to lose at least 5% of their body weight.
  • Stage 2: Metabolic risk factors and kidney disease. Includes people who already have Type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, high triglyceride levels, and/or kidney disease. Medications that target kidney function, lower blood sugar, and which help with weight loss should be considered at this stage to prevent diseases of the heart and blood vessels or kidney failure.
  • Stage 3: Early cardiovascular disease without symptoms in people with metabolic risk factors or kidney disease or those at high predicted risk for cardiovascular disease. People show signs of disease in their arteries, or have heart function issues, or may have already had a stroke or heart attack or have kidney or heart failure. Medication may also be needed at this stage.
  • Stage 4: Symptomatic cardiovascular disease in people with excess body fat, metabolic risk factors or kidney disease. In this stage, people are categorized as with or without having kidney failure. May also have already had a heart attack, stroke or heart failure, or cardiovascular conditions such as peripheral artery disease or atrial fibrillation.  

“We now have several therapies that prevent both worsening kidney disease and heart disease,” said Chiadi Ndumele, MD, PhD, Associate Professor of Medicine at Johns Hopkins University and one of the authors of the Circulation paper, in a news release. “The advisory provides guidance for healthcare professionals about how and when to use those therapies, and for the medical community and general public about the best ways to prevent and manage CKM syndrome.”

According to an AHA 2023 Statistical Update, one in three adults in the US have three or more risk factors that contribute to cardiovascular disease, metabolic disorders, or kidney disease. While CKM affects nearly every major organ in the body, it has the biggest impact on the cardiovascular system where it can affect the blood vessels, heart muscle function, the rate of fatty buildup in the arteries, electrical impulses in the heart and more. 

“There is a need for fundamental changes in how we educate healthcare professionals and the public, how we organize care and how we reimburse care related to CKM syndrome,” Ndumele noted. “Key partnerships among stakeholders are needed to improve access to therapies, to support new care models, and to make it easier for people from diverse communities and circumstances to live healthier lifestyles and to achieve ideal cardiovascular health.”

New AHA Risk Calculator

In November, the AHA announced PREVENT (Predicting risk of cardiovascular disease EVENTs), a tool that doctors can use to assess a person’s risk for heart attack, stroke, and heart failure. The new risk calculator, which incorporates CKM, allows physicians to evaluate younger people as well, and examine their long-term risks for cardiovascular issues.

“A new cardiovascular disease risk calculator was needed, particularly one that includes measures of CKM syndrome,” said Sadiya Khan, MD, Professor of Cardiovascular Epidemiology at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine, in an AHA news story.

Doctors can use PREVENT to assess people ages 30 to 79 and predict risk for heart attack, stroke, or heart failure over 10 to 30 years.

“Longer-term estimates are important because short-term or 10-year risk in most young adults is still going to be low. We wanted to think more broadly and apply a life-course perspective,” Khan said. “Providing information on 30-year risk may reveal earlier opportunities for intervention and prevention efforts in younger people.”

According to CDC data, about 695,000 people died of heart disease in the US in 2021. That equates to one in every five deaths. Clinical pathologists will need to understand the AHA recommendations and how doctors will be ordering clinical laboratory tests to determine if a patient has CKM. Then, labs will play a role in helping doctors monitor patients to optimize health and prevent acute episodes that put patients in the hospital.

—JP Schlingman

Related Information:

‘CKM Syndrome’ Gives New Name to Multi-system Heart Disease Risk

Cardiovascular-Kidney-Metabolic Health: A Presidential Advisory from the American Heart Association

New Tool Brings Big Changes to Cardiovascular Disease Predictions

AHA Advisory Focuses on Cardiovascular-Kidney-Metabolic Syndrome

What You Need to Know about CKM Syndrome

Heart Disease Risk, Prevention and Management Redefined

AHA: Heart and Stroke Statistics

CDC: Heart Disease Facts

Northwestern University Study Shares News Insights into Aging Guided by Transcriptome, Gene Length Imbalance

Findings could lead to deeper understanding of why we age, and to medical laboratory tests and treatments to slow or even reverse aging

Can humans control aging by keeping their genes long and balanced? Researchers at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois, believe it may be possible. They have unveiled a “previously unknown mechanism” behind aging that could lead to medical interventions to slow or even reverse aging, according to a Northwestern news release.

Should additional studies validate these early findings, this line of testing may become a new service clinical laboratories could offer to referring physicians and patients. It would expand the test menu with assays that deliver value in diagnosing the aging state of a patient, and which identify the parts of the transcriptome that are undergoing the most alterations that reduce lifespan.

It may also provide insights into how treatments and therapies could be implemented by physicians to address aging.

The Northwestern University scientists published their findings in the journal Nature Aging title, “Aging Is Associated with a Systemic Length-Associated Transcriptome Imbalance.”

“I find it very elegant that a single, relatively concise principle seems to account for nearly all of the changes in activity of genes that happen in animals as they change,” Thomas Stoeger, PhD, postdoctoral scholar in the Amaral Lab who led the study, told GEN. Clinical laboratories involved in omics research may soon have new anti-aging diagnostic tests to perform. (Photo copyright: Amaral Lab.)

Possible ‘New Instrument’ for Biological Testing

Researchers found clues to aging in the length of genes. A gene transcript length reveals “molecular-level changes” during aging: longer genes relate to longer lifespans and shorter genes suggest shorter lives, GEN summarized.

The phenomenon the researchers uncovered—which they dubbed transcriptome imbalance—was “near universal” in the tissues they analyzed (blood, muscle, bone, and organs) from both humans and animals, Northwestern said. 

According to the National Human Genome Research Institute fact sheet, a transcriptome is “a collection of all the gene readouts (aka, transcript) present in a cell” shedding light on gene activity or expression.

The Northwestern study suggests “systems-level” changes are responsible for aging—a different view than traditional biology’s approach to analyzing the effects of single genes.

“We have been primarily focusing on a small number of genes, thinking that a few genes would explain disease,” said Luis Amaral, PhD, Senior Author of the Study and Professor of Chemical and Biological Engineering at Northwestern, in the news release.

“So, maybe we were not focused on the right thing before. Now that we have this new understanding, it’s like having a new instrument. It’s like Galileo with a telescope, looking at space. Looking at gene activity through this new lens will enable us to see biological phenomena differently,” Amaral added.

In their Nature Aging paper, Amaral and his colleagues wrote, “We hypothesize that aging is associated with a phenomenon that affects the transcriptome in a subtle but global manner that goes unnoticed when focusing on the changes in expression of individual genes.

“We show that transcript length alone explains most transcriptional changes observed with aging in mice and humans,” they continued.

Researchers Turn to AI, RNA Sequencing

According to their published study, the Northwestern University scientists used large datasets, artificial intelligence (AI), and RNA (ribonucleic acid) sequencing in their analysis of tissue derived from:

  • Humans (men and women), age 30 to 49, 50 to 69, and 70 years and older. 
  • Mice, age four months to 24 months.
  • Rats, age six to 24 months.
  • Killifish, age five weeks to 39 weeks.

Scientific American reported the following study findings:

  • In tissues studied, older animals’ long transcripts were not as “abundant” as short transcripts, creating “imbalance.”
  • “Imbalance” likely prohibited the researchers’ discovery of a “specific set of genes” changing.
  • As animals aged, shorter genes “appeared to become more active” than longer genes.
  • In humans, the top 5% of genes with the shortest transcripts “included many linked to shorter life spans such as those involved in maintaining the length of telomeres.”
  • Conversely, the researchers’ review of the leading 5% of genes in humans with the longest transcripts found an association with long lives.
  • Antiaging drugs—rapamycin (aka, sirolimus) and resveratrol—were linked to an increase in long-gene transcripts.

“The changes in the activity of genes are very, very small, and these small changes involve thousands of genes. We found this change was consistent across different tissues and in different animals. We found it almost everywhere,” Thomas Stoeger, PhD, postdoctoral scholar in the Amaral Lab who led the study, told GEN.

In their paper, the Northwestern scientists noted implications for creation of healthcare interventions.

“We believe that understanding the direction of causality between other age-dependent cellular and transcriptomic changes and length-associated transcriptome imbalance could open novel research directions for antiaging interventions,” they wrote.

Other ‘Omics’ Studies

Dark Daily has previously reported on transcriptomics studies, along with research into the other “omics,” including metabolomics, proteomics, and genomics.

In “Spatial Transcriptomics Provide a New and Innovative Way to Analyze Tissue Biology, May Have Value in Surgical Pathology,” we explored how newly combined digital pathology, artificial intelligence (AI), and omics technologies are providing anatomic pathologists and medical laboratory scientists with powerful diagnostic tools.

In “Swiss Researchers Develop a Multi-omic Tumor Profiler to Inform Clinical Decision Support and Guide Precision Medicine Therapy for Cancer Patients,” we looked at how new biomarkers for cancer therapies derived from the research could usher in superior clinical laboratory diagnostics that identify a patient’s suitability for personalized drug therapies and treatments.

And in “Human Salivary Proteome Wiki Developed at University of Buffalo May Provide Biomarkers for New Diagnostic Tools and Medical Laboratory Tests,” we covered how proteins in human saliva make up its proteome and may be the key to new, precision medicine diagnostics that would give clinical pathologists new capabilities to identify disease.

Fountain of Youth

While more research is needed to validate its findings, the Northwestern study is compelling as it addresses a new area of transcriptome knowledge. This is another example of researchers cracking open human and animal genomes and gaining new insights into the processes supporting life.

For clinical laboratories and pathologists, diagnostic testing to reverse aging and guide the effectiveness of therapies may one day be possible—kind of like science’s take on the mythical Fountain of Youth.  

—Donna Marie Pocius

Related Information:

Aging Is Driven by Unbalanced Genes

Aging Linked to Gene Length Imbalance and Shift Towards Shorter Genes

NIH: Transcriptome Fact Sheet

Aging Is Associated with a Systemic Length-Associated Transcriptome Imbalance

Aging Is Linked to More Activity in Short Genes than in Long Genes

Spatial Transcriptomics Provide a New and Innovative Way to Analyze Tissue Biology, May Have Value in Surgical Pathology

Swiss Researchers Develop a Multi-omic Tumor Profiler to Inform Clinical Decision Support and Guide Precision Medicine Therapy for Cancer Patients

Human Salivary Proteome Wiki Developed at University of Buffalo May Provide Biomarkers for New Diagnostic Tools and Medical Laboratory Tests

Vanderbilt University Researchers Combine Genetic Data and EHR Records to Identify Undiagnosed Disease in Patients

Multi-university research group discovers that heart arrhythmia genes may be more common than previously thought

For years, big data has been heralded as the key to unlocking the promise of personalized medicine. Now, researchers at Vanderbilt University are bringing that goal a step closer to reality by combining genetic testing data with data stored in electronic health record (EHR) systems to reveal undiagnosed disease in individual patients.

Should their research result in new ways to identify and diagnose disease, doctors and clinical laboratories would do confirmatory testing and then initiate a precision medicine plan.

Vanderbilt University Medical Center (VUMC) led a multi-university team of researchers that used data from the eMERGE (Electronic Medical Records and Genomics) network in two separate studies. eMERGE is a consortium of medical centers funded by the National Human Genome Research Institute (NHGRI) for the advancement of EHR data in genomics research.

The first study, published in the journal Circulation, titled, “Arrhythmia Variant Associations and Reclassifications in the eMERGE-III Sequencing Study,” looked at 10 arrhythmia-associated genes in individuals who had no prior indication for cardiac genetic testing.

The second study, published in Jama Oncology, titled, “Association of Pathogenic Variants in Hereditary Cancer Genes with Multiple Diseases,” explored the spectrum of diseases associated with hereditary cancer genes.

Dan Roden, MD, Senior Vice President for Personalized Medicine at VUMC and Senior Author of the Circulation study, said in a VUMC news release that the findings support the growing use of genetic information in clinical care.

“The questions we asked were: How many people who had no previous indication for cardiac genetic testing had pathogenic or likely pathogenic variants, and how many of those people actually had a phenotype in the electronic health records?” he explained.

Arrhythmia More Common than Previously Thought

The VUMC researchers drew data for their reports from the eMERGE Phase III study, which investigated the feasibility of population genomic screening by sequencing 109 genes across the spectrum of Mendelian diseases—genetic diseases that are caused by a mutation in a single gene—in more than 20,000 individuals. The scientists returned variant results to the participants and used EHR and follow-up clinical data to ascertain patient phenotypes, according to a Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine news release.

The research team looked specifically at the 120 consortium participants that had disease-associated pathogenic or likely pathogenic (P/LP) variants in the arrhythmia-associated genes. An analysis of the EHR data showed that 0.6% of the studied population had a variant that increases risk for potentially life-threatening arrhythmia, and that there was overrepresentation of arrhythmia phenotypes among patients, the VUMC news release noted.

The research team returned results to 54 participants and, with clinical follow-up, made 19 diagnoses (primarily long-QT syndrome) of inherited arrhythmia syndromes. Twelve of those 19 diagnoses were made only after variant results were returned, the study’s authors wrote.

Carlos G. Vanoye, PhD, Research Associate Professor of Pharmacology at Northwestern University (NU), said the study suggests arrhythmia genes may be more common than previously thought.

“A person can carry a disease-causing gene variant but exhibit no obvious signs or symptoms of the disease,” he said in the NU news release. “Because the genes we studied are associated with sudden death, which may have no warning signs, discovery of a potentially life-threatening arrhythmia gene variant can prompt additional clinical work-up to determine risks and guide preventive therapies.”

Dan Roden, MD

“The take-home message is that 3% of people will carry a pathogenic or likely pathogenic variant in a disease-causing gene and many others will carry variants of uncertain significance,” said Dan Roden, MD (above), Senior Vice President for Personalized Medicine at VUMC and Senior Author of the Circulation study in the VUMC news release. “We can use genetic testing, electronic health record phenotypes, and in vitro technologies to evaluate and find people who have unrecognized genetic disease and save lives by making earlier diagnoses.” Clinical laboratories will play a key role in making those early diagnoses and in managing personalized medical treatment plans. (Photo copyright: Vanderbilt University.)

Variants of Uncertain Significance

According to the NU news release, the scientists determined the functional consequences of the variants of uncertain significance they found and used that data to refine the assessment of pathogenicity. In the end, they reclassified 11 of the variants: three that were likely benign and eight that were likely pathogenic.

In the JAMA Oncology study, the VUMC scientists and other researchers conducted a phenome-wide association study to find EHR phenotypes associated with variants in 23 hereditary cancer genes. According to the VUMC news release, they identified 19 new associations:

The VUMC study findings could improve disease diagnosis and management for cancer patients and help identify high-risk individuals, the researchers noted in their published report.

Other Scientists Urge Caution

Nonetheless, Amsterdam University Medical Centers professors Roddy Walsh, PhD,  Connie Bezzina, PhD, and Arthur A.M. Wilde, PhD, urged caution with coupling large-scale genomic analysis to EHRs.

In an editorial published in Circulation, titled, “First Steps of Population Genomic Medicine in the Arrhythmia World: Pros and Cons,” the professors noted that using genomic information in the case of potentially lethal inherited arrhythmia syndromes could be “lifesaving,” but questioned the benefits of reporting such secondary findings when patients are undergoing genome sequencing for other indications such as cancer.

“The likelihood that these ‘genetic diagnoses’ are translated into clinical diagnoses have not been completely evaluated,” they wrote. “In addition to the challenge of accurately identifying disease-causing genetic variants, defining the penetrance of such variants is critical to this process, i.e., what proportion of individuals in the general population with apparently pathogenic variants will develop the associated phenotype? If penetrance is low for particular gene/phenotype combinations, the costs associated with clinical screening and the psychological effects on individuals informed that they have potentially life-threatening variants may outweigh the benefits of the few new clinical diagnoses.”

These latest studies provide further evidence of the value of big data in healthcare and offer another lesson to clinical laboratories and pathologist about the future role data streaming from clinical laboratories and pathology assays may have in the growth of personalized medicine. 

—Andrea Downing Peck

Related Information:

Studies Combine Genetic Testing, Electronic Health Records to Find Undiagnosed Diseases

Arrhythmia Variant Associations and Reclassifications in the eMERGE-III Sequencing Study

Electronic Medical Records and Genomics (eMERGE) Phase III (eMERGE)

First Steps of Population Genomic Medicine in the Arrhythmia World: Pros and Cons

Association of Pathogenic Variants in Hereditary Cancer Genes with Multiple Diseases

Arrhythmia Genes More Common than Previously Thought