For all the excitement over "personalized medicine" in the last two decades, its promise has not fully come to pass. Consider your standard annual physical.
Scientists have measured thousands of proteins from a single blood test to assess many individualized health conditions at once.
Your doctor still does a blood test to check your cholesterol and gauge your risk for heart disease by considering traditional risk factors (like smoking, diabetes, blood pressure) — an evaluation that has not changed in decades.
But a high-risk number alone is not enough to tell accurately whether you will suffer from heart disease. It just reflects your risk compared to population-level averages. In other words, not every person with elevated "bad" cholesterol will have a heart attack, so how can doctors determine who truly needs to give up the cheeseburgers and who doesn't?
Now, an emerging area of research may unlock some real-time answers. For the first time, as reported in the journal Nature Medicine last week, scientists have measured thousands of proteins from a single blood test to assess many individualized health conditions at once, including liver and kidney function, diabetes risk, body fat, cardiopulmonary fitness, and even smoking and alcohol consumption. Proteins can give a clear snapshot of how your body is faring at any given moment, as well as a sneak preview at what diseases may be lurking under the surface.
"Years from now," says study co-author Peter Ganz of UCSF, "we will probably be looking back on this paper as a milestone in personalized medicine."
We spoke to Ganz about the significance of this milestone. Our interview has been edited and condensed.
Is this the first study of its kind?
Yes, it is. This is a study where we measured 5,000 proteins at once to look for patterns that could either predict the risk of future diseases or inform the current state of health. Previous to this, people have measured typically one protein at a time, and some of these individual proteins have made it into clinical practice.
An example would be a protein called C-reactive protein, which is a measure of inflammation and is used sometimes in cardiology to predict the risk of future heart attacks. But what's really new is this scale. We wanted to get away from just focusing on one problem that the patient may have at a time, whether it's heart disease or kidney disease, and by measuring a much greater number of proteins, the hope is that we could inform the health of ultimately just about every organ in the body or every tissue. It's a step forward for what I would call "a one-stop shop."
"I'm very excited about personalized medicine through proteins as opposed to genes because you get both the nature and nurture."
Three things get me excited about this. One is the convenience for the patient of a single test to determine many different diseases. The second thing is the healthcare cost savings. We estimated what the cost would be to get these 11 healthcare measures that we reported on using traditional testing and the cost was upwards of 3,000 British pounds. And even though I don't know for sure what the cost of the protein tests would ultimately be, [it could come down to about $50 to $100].
The last thing is that the measurement of proteins is part of what people have called personalized medicine or precision medicine. If you look at risk factors across the population, it may not apply to individuals. In contrast, proteins are downstream of risk factors. So proteins actually tell us whether the traditional risk factors have set in motion the necessary machinery to cause disease. Proteins are the worker bees that regulate what the human body does, and so if you can find some anomalies in the proteins, that may inform us if a disease is likely to be ongoing even in its earliest stages.
Does protein testing have advantages over genetic testing for predicting future health risks?
The problem with genomics is that genes usually don't take care of the environment. It's a blueprint, but your blueprint has no idea what you will be exposed to during your lifetime in terms of the environment and lifestyle that you may choose and medications that you may be on. These are things that proteins can account for. I'm very excited about personalized medicine through proteins as opposed to genes because you get both the nature and nurture as opposed to genomics, which only gives you nature but doesn't account for anything else.
Proteins can also be tracked over time and that's not something you can do with genes. So if your behavior improves, your genes won't change, but your proteins will.
Could this new test become a regular feature of your annual physical?
That's the idea. This would be basically almost a standalone test that you could have done every year. And hopefully you wouldn't need other tests to complement this. This could be your yearly physical.
How much more does it need to be validated before it can enter the clinic and patients can trust the results?
This was a proof-of concept study. To really make this useful, we need to expand from 11 measures of health to a hundred or more health insights, to cover the whole body. And we need to expand this to all racial groups. Three of the five centers in the study were European – all Caucasian – so it's one of our high priorities to find groups of patients with better representation of minorities.
When do you expect doctors to be routinely giving this test to patients?
Much closer to five years than 20 years. We're scaling up from 11 disease states to 100, and many of those studies are underway. Results should be done within three to five years.
Do you think insurance will cover it?
Good question. I have been approached by an insurance company that wanted to understand the product better – a major insurer, with the possibility that this could actually be cost saving.
I have to ask you a curveball -- do you think that the downfall of Theranos will make consumers hesitant to trust a new technology that relies on using a single blood sample to screen for multiple health risks?
[Laughs] You're not the first person to ask me that today. I actually got a call from Elizabeth Holmes [in 2008 when I was at Harvard]. I met with her for an afternoon and met her team two more times. I gave them advice that they completely disregarded.
In many ways, what we do is diametrically opposite to Theranos. They had a culture of secrecy, and what we do is about openness. We publish, like this paper in Nature Medicine, to show the scientific details. Our supplement is much longer than the typical academic paper. We reveal everything we know. A lot of the research we do is funded by [the National Institutes of Health], and they have strict expectations about data sharing. So we agree to make the data available on a public website. If there is something we haven't done with the data, others can do it.
So you're saying that this is not another Theranos.
No, God forbid. We hope to be the opposite.
In December 1958, on a vacation with his wife in Kenya, a 28-year-old British tea broker named Robin Cavendish became suddenly ill. Neither he nor his wife Diana knew it at the time, but Robin's illness would change the course of medical history forever.
Robin was rushed to a nearby hospital in Kenya where the medical staff delivered the crushing news: Robin had contracted polio, and the paralysis creeping up his body was almost certainly permanent. The doctors placed Robin on a ventilator through a tracheotomy in his neck, as the paralysis from his polio infection had rendered him unable to breathe on his own – and going off the average life expectancy at the time, they gave him only three months to live. Robin and Diana (who was pregnant at the time with their first child, Jonathan) flew back to England so he could be admitted to a hospital. They mentally prepared to wait out Robin's final days.
But Robin did something unexpected when he returned to the UK – just one of many things that would astonish doctors over the next several years: He survived. Diana gave birth to Jonathan in February 1959 and continued to visit Robin regularly in the hospital with the baby. Despite doctors warning that he would soon succumb to his illness, Robin kept living.
After a year in the hospital, Diana suggested something radical: She wanted Robin to leave the hospital and live at home in South Oxfordshire for as long as he possibly could, with her as his nurse. At the time, this suggestion was unheard of. People like Robin who depended on machinery to keep them breathing had only ever lived inside hospital walls, as the prevailing belief was that the machinery needed to keep them alive was too complicated for laypeople to operate. But Diana and Robin were up for the challenges – and the risks. Because his ventilator ran on electricity, if the house were to unexpectedly lose power, Diana would either need to restore power quickly or hand-pump air into his lungs to keep him alive.
Robin's wheelchair was not only the first of its kind; it became the model for the respiratory wheelchairs that people still use today.
In an interview as an adult, Jonathan Cavendish reflected on his parents' decision to live outside the hospital on a ventilator: "My father's mantra was quality of life," he explained. "He could have stayed in the hospital, but he didn't think that was as good of a life as he could manage. He would rather be two minutes away from death and living a full life."
After a few years of living at home, however, Robin became tired of being confined to his bed. He longed to sit outside, to visit friends, to travel – but had no way of doing so without his ventilator. So together with his friend Teddy Hall, a professor and engineer at Oxford University, the two collaborated in 1962 to create an entirely new invention: a battery-operated wheelchair prototype with a ventilator built in. With this, Robin could now venture outside the house – and soon the Cavendish family became famous for taking vacations. It was something that, by all accounts, had never been done before by someone who was ventilator-dependent. Robin and Hall also designed a van so that the wheelchair could be plugged in and powered during travel. Jonathan Cavendish later recalled a particular family vacation that nearly ended in disaster when the van broke down outside of Barcelona, Spain:
"My poor old uncle [plugged] my father's chair into the wrong socket," Cavendish later recalled, causing the electricity to short. "There was fire and smoke, and both the van and the chair ground to a halt." Johnathan, who was eight or nine at the time, his mother, and his uncle took turns hand-pumping Robin's ventilator by the roadside for the next thirty-six hours, waiting for Professor Hall to arrive in town and repair the van. Rather than being panicked, the Cavendishes managed to turn the vigil into a party. Townspeople came to greet them, bringing food and music, and a local priest even stopped by to give his blessing.
Robin had become a pioneer, showing the world that a person with severe disabilities could still have mobility, access, and a fuller quality of life than anyone had imagined. His mission, along with Hall's, then became gifting this independence to others like himself. Robin and Hall raised money – first from the Ernest Kleinwort Charitable Trust, and then from the British Department of Health – to fund more ventilator chairs, which were then manufactured by Hall's company, Littlemore Scientific Engineering, and given to fellow patients who wanted to live full lives at home. Robin and Hall used themselves as guinea pigs, testing out different models of the chairs and collaborating with scientists to create other devices for those with disabilities. One invention, called the Possum, allowed paraplegics to control things like the telephone and television set with just a nod of the head. Robin's wheelchair was not only the first of its kind; it became the model for the respiratory wheelchairs that people still use today.
Robin went on to enjoy a long and happy life with his family at their house in South Oxfordshire, surrounded by friends who would later attest to his "down-to-earth" personality, his sense of humor, and his "irresistible" charm. When he died peacefully at his home in 1994 at age 64, he was considered the world's oldest-living person who used a ventilator outside the hospital – breaking yet another barrier for what medical science thought was possible.
Sarah Watts is a health and science writer based in Chicago. Follow her on Twitter at @swattswrites.
In June 2012, Kirstie Ennis was six months into her second deployment to Afghanistan and recently promoted to sergeant. The helicopter gunner and seven others were three hours into a routine mission of combat resupplies and troop transport when their CH-53D helicopter went down hard.
Miraculously, all eight people onboard survived, but Ennis' injuries were many and severe. She had a torn rotator cuff, torn labrum, crushed cervical discs, facial fractures, deep lacerations and traumatic brain injury. Despite a severely fractured ankle, doctors managed to save her foot, for a while at least.
In November 2015, after three years of constant pain and too many surgeries to count, Ennis relented. She elected to undergo a lower leg amputation but only after she completed the 1,000-mile, 72-day Walking with the Wounded journey across the UK.
On Veteran's Day of that year, on the other side of the country, orthopedic surgeon Cato Laurencin announced a moonshot challenge he was setting out to achieve on behalf of wounded warriors like Ennis: the Hartford Engineering A Limb (HEAL) Project.
Laurencin, who is a University of Connecticut professor of chemical, materials and biomedical engineering, teamed up with experts in tissue bioengineering and regenerative medicine from Harvard, Columbia, UC Irvine and SASTRA University in India. Laurencin and his colleagues at the Connecticut Convergence Institute for Translation in Regenerative Engineering made a bold commitment to regenerate an entire limb within 15 years – by the year 2030.
Dr. Cato Laurencin pictured in his office at UConn.
Photo Credit: UConn
Regenerative Engineering -- A Whole New Field
Limb regeneration in humans has been a medical and scientific fascination for decades, with little to show for the effort. However, Laurencin believes that if we are to reach the next level of 21st century medical advances, this puzzle must be solved.
An estimated 185,000 people undergo upper or lower limb amputation every year. Despite the significant advances in electromechanical prosthetics, these individuals still lack the ability to perform complex functions such as sensation for tactile input, normal gait and movement feedback. As far as Laurencin is concerned, the only clinical answer that makes sense is to regenerate a whole functional limb.
Laurencin feels other regeneration efforts were hampered by their siloed research methods with chemists, surgeons, engineers all working separately. Success, he argues, requires a paradigm shift to a trans-disciplinary approach that brings together cutting-edge technologies from disparate fields such as biology, material sciences, physical, chemical and engineering sciences.
As the only surgeon ever inducted into the academies of Science, Medicine and Innovation, Laurencin is uniquely suited for the challenge. He is regarded as the founder of Regenerative Engineering, defined as the convergence of advanced materials sciences, stem cell sciences, physics, developmental biology and clinical translation for the regeneration of complex tissues and organ systems.
But none of this is achievable without early clinician participation across scientific fields to develop new technologies and a deeper understanding of how to harness the body's innate regenerative capabilities. "When I perform a surgical procedure or something is torn or needs to be repaired, I count on the body being involved in regenerating tissue," he says. "So, understanding how the body works to regenerate itself and harnessing that ability is an important factor for the regeneration process."
The Birth of the Vision
Laurencin's passion for regeneration began when he was a sports medicine fellow at Cornell University Medical Center in the early 1990s. There he saw a significant number of injuries to the anterior cruciate ligament (ACL), the major ligament that stabilizes the knee. He believed he could develop a better way to address those injuries using biomaterials to regenerate the ligament. He sketched out a preliminary drawing on a napkin one night over dinner. He has spent the next 30 years regenerating tissues, including the patented L-C ligament.
As chair of Orthopaedic Surgery at the University of Virginia during the peak of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Laurencin treated military personnel who survived because of improved helmets, body armor and battlefield medicine but were left with more devastating injuries, including traumatic brain injuries and limb loss.
"I was so honored to care for them and I so admired their steadfast courage that I became determined to do something big for them," says Laurencin.
When he tells people about his plans to regrow a limb, he gets a lot of eye rolls, which he finds amusing but not discouraging. Growing bone cells was relatively new when he was first focused on regenerating bone in 1987 at MIT; in 2007 he was well on his way to regenerating ligaments at UVA when many still doubted that ligaments could even be reconstructed. He and his team have already regenerated torn rotator cuff tendons and ACL ligaments using a nano-textured fabric seeded with stem cells.
Even as a finalist for the $4 million NIH Pioneer Award for high-risk/high-reward research, he faced a skeptical scientific audience in 2014. "They said, 'Well what do you plan to do?' I said 'I plan to regenerate a whole limb in people.' There was a lot of incredulousness. They stared at me and asked a lot of questions. About three days later, I received probably the best score I've ever gotten on an NIH grant."
In the Thick of the Science
Humans are born with regenerative abilities--two-year-olds have regrown fingertips--but lose that ability with age. Salamanders are the only vertebrates that can regenerate lost body parts as adults; axolotl, the rare Mexican salamander, can grow extra limbs.
The axolotl is important as a model organism because it is a four-footed vertebrate with a similar body plan to humans. Mapping the axolotl genome in 2018 enhanced scientists' genetic understanding of their evolution, development, and regeneration. Being easy to breed in captivity allowed the HEAL team to closely study these amphibians and discover a new cell type they believe may shed light on how to mimic the process in humans.
"Whenever limb regeneration takes place in the salamander, there is a huge amount of something called heparan sulfate around that area," explains Laurencin. "We thought, 'What if this heparan sulfate is the key ingredient to allowing regeneration to take place?' We found these groups of cells that were interspersed in tissues during the time of regeneration that seemed to have connections to each other that expressed this heparan sulfate."
Called GRID (Groups that are Regenerative, Interspersed and Dendritic), these cells were also recently discovered in mice. While GRID cells don't regenerate as well in mice as in salamanders, finding them in mammals was significant.
"If they're found in mice. we might be able to find these in humans in some form," Laurencin says. "We think maybe it will help us figure out regeneration or we can create cells that mimic what grid cells do and create an artificial grid cell."
What Comes Next?
Laurencin and his team have individually engineered and made every single tissue in the lower limb, including bone, cartilage, ligament, skin, nerve, blood vessels. Regenerating joints and joint tissue is the next big mile marker, which Laurencin sees as essential to regenerating a limb that functions and performs in the way he envisions.
"Using stem cells and amnion tissue, we can regenerate joints that are damaged, and have severe arthritis," he says. "We're making progress on all fronts, and making discoveries we believe are going to be helping people along the way."
That focus and advancement is vital to Ennis. After laboring over the decision to have her leg amputated below the knee, she contracted MRSA two weeks post-surgery. In less than a month, she went from a below-the-knee-amputee to a through-the-knee amputee to an above-the-knee amputee.
"A below-the-knee amputation is night-and-day from above-the-knee," she said. "You have to relearn everything. You're basically a toddler."
Kirstie Ennis pictured in July 2020.
Photo Credit: Ennis' Instagram
The clock is ticking on the timeline Laurencin set for himself. Nine years might seem like forever if you're doing time but it might appear fleeting when you're trying to create something that's never been done before. But Laurencin isn't worried. He's convinced time is on his side.
"Every week, I receive an email or a call from someone, maybe a mother whose child has lost a finger or I'm in communication with a disabled American veteran who wants to know how the progress is going. That energizes me to continue to work hard to try to create these sorts of solutions because we're talking about people and their lives."
He devotes about 60 hours a week to the project and the roughly 100 students, faculty and staff who make up the HEAL team at the Convergence Institute seem acutely aware of what's at stake and appear equally dedicated.
"We're in the thick of the science in terms of making this happen," says Laurencin. "We've moved from making the impossible possible to making the possible a reality. That's what science is all about."