As a geneticist, talking with George Church or the President of the Personalized Medicine Coalition was a fascinating experience while writing my recently published book, The Guide to the Future of Medicine. This is still one of the most promising fields of medicine but without getting it closer to the general public, genomics will never play a pivotal role in practicing medicine.
Let’s start from the beginning. From the years of 2005, 2006 and 2007, patients have been able to order genetic tests online with 23andme, Navigenics or Pathway Genomics. In 2013, 23andme received a letter from FDA about ceasing marketing of the screening service. Since then, the market has been transforming into something new that could also meet the regulations of the FDA. At least, hopefully.
I’ve had 3 genomic tests with Navigenics, Pathway Genomics and My Gentle Labs with 3 different results and experience. I thought the direct-to-consumer (DTC) market is just not ready for prime time. I also analyzed my own raw data with Promethease and got to very interesting conclusions about the future of my life. I loved the possibility to get insights about my genome as well, not just measuring my vital signs. Here is my overall experience with genetic testing:
Similarly to how the wearable revolution is transforming into a world of smart clothes, disease prevention and insideables (swallowed sensors), the field of DTC genomics has been changing too. Here are some reasons why.
- While the cost of sequencing one person’s genome was about $3 billion in 2003, now it’s possible for under $1-3000 (see figure below). The $1000 genome is still not here, but the trends are clear and soon the shipping cost of the sample will be higher than actually sequencing that genome.
- The number of sequenced genomes is skyrocketing. Illumina said that 228,000 Human Genomes would be sequenced only in 2014 and the predictions for this year are even bigger. Soon we will all have access to our own genomes.
- It is known that fetal DNA is circulating in the mother’s blood,and it can be separated from her blood to allow analysis of the fetus’s genetic makeup. Imagine the possibilities.
- Large US hospitals are about to begin sequencing the genomes of healthy newborn babies as part of a government-funded research program called BabySeq. Major diseases could be pointed out and precautions could be made about others far in time.
- Oxford Nanopore developed the MinION™ portable device for molecular analyses of DNA, RNA and proteins that is driven by nanopore technology. It might be the first step towards sequencing genes at home, despite early criticisms.
- There are more and more targeted cancer therapies available. As certain tumors have specific genetic mutations such as BRCA in breast cancer or EGFR in lung cancer, among others, they might be sensitive to targeted drugs. Sequencing a tumor’s own genome is becoming a routine step in designing the therapy for cancer patients, although the costs are exceptionally high.
As you can see, examples underscore the notion that genomics could play a very important role in everyday medicine, but numerous steps and elements are needed for that.
- Comprehensive and thorough regulation from organizations such as the FDA or EMA about what DTC companies can offer and actually do. Can patients order tests online or only their caregivers?
- Innovative companies connecting patients to medical professionals through the genomic knowledge behind cancer and other diseases.
- Reliable algorithms that could help use the huge amount of data genome sequencing leads to in analyzing health outcomes. A great example is how Joel Dudley at Mount Sinai Medical Center is working on implementing big data in medical decision making. IBM Watson is also analyzing genomic data to find treatments in brain cancer.
- With the widespread of genetic testing and the decline in the cost, it should be a common thing to analyze my genome or get a detailed analysis. Moreover, caregivers should be trained to be able to use that data in patients’ health or disease management.
- A better understanding of what genomics can and cannot offer by the general public. Professor Church pointed out to me that without educating people about the pros and cons of the genomic revolution, we cannot make the right steps forward.
It has become clear, seeing the trends, that the technology letting us sequence genomes at home is coming. Although it’s still hard to make good, evidence-based decisions purely based on genetic background; to get reimbursed if genetics-based personalized treatments are cost-effective on the long term (but expensive on the short term); and to interpret the huge amount of data. Cognitive computers are meant to help us with that, but I’m sure ever-improving technologies will provide all of us with our own genomes far before we could do anything with that information.
Read more about the future of genomics in my book, The Guide to the Future of Medicine.