Late in 2018, Chris Reiner found himself “chasing a persistent cough” to figure out a cause. He talked to doctors; he endured various tests, including an X-ray. Initially, his physician suspected bronchitis. After several months, he still felt no improvement. In May 2019, his general practitioner recommended that Reiner, a business development specialist for a Seattle-based software company, schedule a CAT scan.
Reiner knew immediately that his doctor asking him to visit his office to discuss the results wasn’t a good sign. The longtime resident of Newburyport, MA, remembers dreading “that conversation that people who learn they have cancer have.”
“The doctor handed me something to look at, and the only thing I remember after that was everything went blank all around me,” Reiner, 50, reveals. “It was the magnitude of what he was telling me, that I had a malignant mass in my lung.”
Next, he recalls, he felt ushered into “the jaws of the medical system very quickly.” He spent a couple of days meeting with a team of doctors at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in nearby Boston. One of them was from a medical field he hadn’t even known existed, a pulmonary interventionist, who would perform a biopsy on the mass in his lung.
“Knowing there was a medicine for my particular type of cancer was like a weight lifted off my shoulders."
A week later he and his wife Allison returned to meet with the oncologist, radiologist, pulmonary interventionist – his medical team. They confirmed his initial diagnosis: Stage 4 metastatic lung cancer that had spread to several parts of his body. “We just sat there, stunned,” he says. “I felt like I was getting hit by a wrecking ball over and over.”
An onslaught of medical terminology about what they had identified flowed over the shocked couple, but then the medical team switched gears, he recalls. They offered hope. “They told me, ‘Hey, you’re not a smoker, so that’s good,’” Reiner says. “‘There’s a good chance that what’s driving this disease for you is actually a genetic mutation, and we have ways to understand more about what that could be through some simple testing.’”
They told him about Foundation Medicine, a company launched in neighboring Cambridge, MA, in 2009 that develops, manufactures, and sells genomic profiling assays. These are tests that, according to the company’s website, “can analyze a broad panel of genes to detect the four main classes of genomic alterations known to drive cancer growth.” With these insights, certain patients can be matched with therapies targeted specifically for the genetic driver(s) of their cancer. The company maintains one of the largest cancer genomic databases in the world, with more than 500,000 patient samples profiled, and they have more than 65 biopharma partners.
According to Foundation Medicine, they are the only company that has FDA-approved tests for both tissue- and blood-based comprehensive genomic profiling tests. One other company has an FDA-approved biopsy test, and several other companies offer tissue-based genomic profiling. Additionally, several major cancer centers like Memorial Sloan Kettering in New York and Anderson Cancer Center in Texas have their own such testing platforms.
Currently, genomic profiling is more accessible for patients with advanced cancer, due to broader insurance coverage in later stages of disease.
“Right now, the vast majority of patients either have cancers for which we don’t have treatments or they have genetic alterations that are not known,” says Jorge Garcia, MD, Division Chief, Solid Tumor Oncology, UH Cleveland Medical Center, which has its own CGP testing platform. “However, a significant proportion of patients with advanced cancer have alterations that we can tap for therapeutic purposes.”
Foundation Medicine estimates that in 2017, just over 5 percent of advanced solid cancer patients in the U.S. received CGP testing. In 2021, they estimate that number is between 25 to 30 percent of advanced solid cancer patients in the U.S., which doesn’t include patients who are tested with small (less than 50 genes) panels. Their panel tests for more than 300 cancer-related genes.
“The good news is the platforms we are developing are better and more comprehensive, and they’re going to continue to be larger data sets,” Dr. Garcia adds.
In Reiner’s case, his team ordered comprehensive genetic profiling on both his tissue and blood, from Foundation Medicine.
At this point, Reiner still wasn’t sure what genetic mutations were or how they factored into cancer or what comprehensive genomic profiling entailed. That day, though, his team ushered the Reiners into the world of precision oncology that placed him on much more sure footing to learn about and fight the specific lung cancer that had been troubling him for more than a year.
What genetic alterations were driving his cancer? Foundation Medicine’s tests were about to find out.
At the core of these tests is next generation sequencing, a DNA sequencing technology. Since 2009, this has revolutionized genomic research, according to the National Center for Biotechnology Information, because it allows an entire human genome to be sequenced within one day. Cancer genomics posits that cancer is caused by mutations and is a disease of the genome. Now, cancer genomes can be systemically studied in their entirety. For cancer patients such as Reiner, NGS can provide a more precise diagnosis and classification of the disease, more accurate prognosis, and potentially the identification of targeted drug treatments. Ultimately, the technology can provide the basis of personalized cancer management.
The detailed reports supply patients and their oncologists with extensive information about the patient’s genomic profile and potential treatment options that they can discuss together. Reiner trusted his doctors that this approach was worth the two- or three-week wait to receive the Foundation Medicine report and the specifically targeted treatment, rather than immediately jump into a round of chemotherapy. He is especially grateful now, he says, because the report delivered a great deal of relief from his previously exhausting and growing anxiety about having cancer.
Reiner and his team learned his lung cancer contained the epidermal growth factor receptor (EGFR) mutation. That biomarker enabled his oncologist to prescribe Tagrisso (osimertinib), a medication developed to directly target that genetic mutation.
“Knowing there was a medicine for my particular type of cancer was like a weight lifted off my shoulders,” he says. “It only took a week or two before my cough finally started subsiding. This pill goes right after the particular piece of genetic material in the tumor that’s causing its growth.”
Dr. Jerry Mitchell, director field medical oncology, Foundation Medicine, in Columbus, Ohio, explains that genomic profiling is generating substantial impacts today. “This is a technology that is the standard of care across many advanced malignancies that takes patients from chemotherapy-only options to very targeted options or immunotherapy options,” he says. “You can also look at complex biomarkers, and these are not specific genetic changes but different genes across the tumor to get a biomarker.”
According to Dr. Mitchell, Foundation Medicine’s technology can test more than 324 different cancer-related genes in a single test. Thus, a growing number of patients are benefitting from comprehensive genetic profiling, due to the rapidly growing number of targeted therapies. While not all of the cancers are treatable yet, the company uses that information to partner with researchers to find new potential therapies for patient groups that may have rare mutations.
Since his tumor’s diagnosis, Reiner has undergone chemotherapy and a couple surgeries to treat the metastatic cancer in other parts of his body, but the drug Tagrisso has significantly reduced his lung tumor. Now, having learned so much during the past couple of years, he is grateful for precision oncology. He still reflects on the probability that, had the Tagrisso pill not been available in May 2019, he might have only survived for another six months or a year.
“Comprehensive Genomic Profiling is not some future state, but in both the U.S. and Europe, it is a very standard, accepted, and recommended first step to knowing how to treat your cancer,” says Dr. Mitchell, adding that he feels fortunate to be an oncologist in this era. “However, we know there are still people not getting this recommended testing, so we still have opportunities to find many more patients and impact them by knowing the molecular profile of their cancer.”
Lori Tipton's life was a cascade of trauma that even a soap opera would not dare inflict upon a character: a mentally unstable family; a brother who died of a drug overdose; the shocking discovery of the bodies of two persons her mother had killed before turning the gun on herself; the devastation of Hurricane Katrina that savaged her hometown of New Orleans; being raped by someone she trusted; and having an abortion. She suffered from severe PTSD.
“My life was filled with anxiety and hypervigilance,” she says. “I was constantly afraid and had mood swings, panic attacks, insomnia, intrusive thoughts and suicidal ideation. I tried to take my life more than once.” She was fortunate to be able to access multiple mental health services, “And while at times some of these modalities would relieve the symptoms, nothing really lasted and nothing really address the core trauma.”
Then in 2018 Tipton enrolled in a clinical trial that combined intense sessions of psychotherapy with limited use of Methylenedioxymethamphetamine, or MDMA, a drug classified as a psychedelic and commonly known as ecstasy or Molly. The regimen was arduous; 1-2 hour preparation sessions, three sessions where MDMA was used, which lasted 6-8 hours, and lengthy sessions afterward to process and integrate the experiences. Two therapists were with her every moment of the three-month program that totaled more than 40 hours.
“It was clear to me that [the therapists] weren't going to heal me, that I was going to have to do the work for myself, but that they were there to completely support my process,” she says. “But the effects of MDMA were really undeniable for me. I felt embodied in a way that I hadn't in years. PTSD had robbed me of the ability to feel safe in my own body.”
Tipton doesn’t think the therapy completely cured her PTSD. “But when I completed the trial in 2018, I no longer qualified for the diagnosis, and I still don't qualify for the diagnosis today,” she told an April workshop on psychedelics as mental health treatment by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine, or NASEM.
Rick Doblin has been a catalyst behind much of the contemporary research into psychedelics. Prior to the DEA clamp down, the Boston psychotherapist had seen that MDMA and other psychedelics could benefit some of his patients where other measures had failed. He immediately organized efforts to question the drug rescheduling but to little avail. In 1986, he created the nonprofit Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS), which slowly laid the scientific foundation for clinical trials, including the one that Tipton joined, using psychedelics to treat mental health conditions.
Now, only slowly, have researchers been able to explore the power of these drugs to treat a broad spectrum of severely debilitating mental health conditions, including trauma, depression, and PTSD, where other available treatments proved inadequate.
“Psychedelic psychotherapy is an attempt to go after the root causes of the problems with just a relatively few administrations, as contrasted to most of the psychiatric drugs used today that are mostly just reducing symptoms and are meant to be taken on a daily basis,” Doblin said in a 2019 TED Talk. Most of these drugs can have broad effect but “some are probably more effective than others for certain conditions,” he added in a recent interview with Leaps.org. Comparative head-to-head studies of psychedelic therapies simply have not been conducted.
Their mechanisms of action are poorly understood and can vary between drugs, but it is generally believed that psychedelics change the activity of neurons so that the brain processes information differently, says Katrin Preller, a neuropsychologist at the University of Zurich. A recent important study in Nature Medicine by Richard Daws and colleagues used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) of the brain and found that “functional networks became more functionally interconnected and flexible after psilocybin treatment…implying that psilocybin's antidepressant action may depend on a global increase in brain network integration.”
Rosalind Watts, a clinical investigator at the Imperial College in London, believes there is “an overestimation of the importance of the drug and an underestimation of the importance of the [therapeutic] context” in psychedelic research. “It is unethical to provide the drug without the other,” she says. Doblin notes that “psychotherapy outcomes research demonstrates that the therapeutic alliance between the therapist and the patients is the single most predictive factor of outcomes. [It is] trust and the sense of safety, the willingness to go into difficult spaces” that makes clinical breakthroughs possible with the drug.
Excitement and Challenges
Recurrent themes expressed at the NASEM workshop were exciting glimpses of the potential for psychedelics to treat mental health conditions combined with the challenges of realizing those potentials. A recent review paper found evidence that using psychedelics can help with treating a variety of common mental illnesses, but the paper could identify only 14 clinical trials of classic psychedelics published since 1991. Much of the reason is that the drugs are not patentable and so the pharmaceutical industry has no interest in investing in expensive clinical trials to bring them to market. MAPS has raised about $135 million over its 36-year history to conduct such research, says Doblin, the vast majority of it from individual donors and none from foundations.
The workshop participants’ views also were colored by the history of drug crackdowns and a fear that research might easily be shut down in the future. There was great concern that use of psychedelics should be confined to clinical trials with high safety and ethical standards, instead of doctors and patients experimenting on their own. “We need to get it right this time,” says Charles Grob, a psychiatrist at the UCLA School of Medicine. But restricting access to psychedelics will become even more difficult now that Oregon and several cities have acted to decriminalize possession and use of many of these drugs.
The experience with ketamine also troubled Grob. He is hoping to “mitigate the rush of rapid commercialization” that occurred with that drug. Ketamine technically is not a psychedelic though it does share some of their potentially euphoric properties. In 2019, soon after the FDA approved a form of ketamine with a limited label indication to treat depression, for profit clinics sprang up promoting off label use of the drug for psychiatric conditions where there was little clinical evidence of efficacy. He fears the same thing will happen when true psychedelics are made available.
If these therapies are approved, access to them is likely to be a problem. The drugs themselves are cheap but the accompanying therapy is not, and there is a shortage of trained psychotherapists. Mental health services often are not adequately covered by health insurance, while the poor and people of color suffer additional burdens of inadequate access. Doblin is committed to health care equity by training additional providers and by investigating whether some of the preparatory and integration sessions might be handled in a group setting. He says it is important that the legal aspects of psychedelics also be addressed so that patients “don't have to go underground” in order to receive this care.
As a type 2 diabetic, Michael Snyder has long been interested in how blood sugar levels vary from one person to another in response to the same food, and whether a more personalized approach to nutrition could help tackle the rapidly cascading levels of diabetes and obesity in much of the western world.
Eight years ago, Snyder, who directs the Center for Genomics and Personalized Medicine at Stanford University, decided to put his theories to the test. In the 2000s continuous glucose monitoring, or CGM, had begun to revolutionize the lives of diabetics, both type 1 and type 2. Using spherical sensors which sit on the upper arm or abdomen – with tiny wires that pierce the skin – the technology allowed patients to gain real-time updates on their blood sugar levels, transmitted directly to their phone.
It gave Snyder an idea for his research at Stanford. Applying the same technology to a group of apparently healthy people, and looking for ‘spikes’ or sudden surges in blood sugar known as hyperglycemia, could provide a means of observing how their bodies reacted to an array of foods.
“We discovered that different foods spike people differently,” he says. “Some people spike to pasta, others to bread, others to bananas, and so on. It’s very personalized and our feeling was that building programs around these devices could be extremely powerful for better managing people’s glucose.”
Unbeknown to Snyder at the time, thousands of miles away, a group of Israeli scientists at the Weizmann Institute of Science were doing exactly the same experiments. In 2015, they published a landmark paper which used CGM to track the blood sugar levels of 800 people over several days, showing that the biological response to identical foods can vary wildly. Like Snyder, they theorized that giving people a greater understanding of their own glucose responses, so they spend more time in the normal range, may reduce the prevalence of type 2 diabetes.
The commercial potential of such apps is clear, but the underlying science continues to generate intriguing findings.
“At the moment 33 percent of the U.S. population is pre-diabetic, and 70 percent of those pre-diabetics will become diabetic,” says Snyder. “Those numbers are going up, so it’s pretty clear we need to do something about it.”
Fast forward to 2022,and both teams have converted their ideas into subscription-based dietary apps which use artificial intelligence to offer data-informed nutritional and lifestyle recommendations. Snyder’s spinoff, January AI, combines CGM information with heart rate, sleep, and activity data to advise on foods to avoid and the best times to exercise. DayTwo–a start-up which utilizes the findings of Weizmann Institute of Science–obtains microbiome information by sequencing stool samples, and combines this with blood glucose data to rate ‘good’ and ‘bad’ foods for a particular person.
“CGMs can be used to devise personalized diets,” says Eran Elinav, an immunology professor and microbiota researcher at the Weizmann Institute of Science in addition to serving as a scientific consultant for DayTwo. “However, this process can be cumbersome. Therefore, in our lab we created an algorithm, based on data acquired from a big cohort of people, which can accurately predict post-meal glucose responses on a personal basis.”
The commercial potential of such apps is clear. DayTwo, who market their product to corporate employers and health insurers rather than individual consumers, recently raised $37 million in funding. But the underlying science continues to generate intriguing findings.
Last year, Elinav and colleagues published a study on 225 individuals with pre-diabetes which found that they achieved better blood sugar control when they followed a personalized diet based on DayTwo’s recommendations, compared to a Mediterranean diet. The journal Cell just released a new paper from Snyder’s group which shows that different types of fibre benefit people in different ways.
“The idea is you hear different fibres are good for you,” says Snyder. “But if you look at fibres they’re all over the map—it’s like saying all animals are the same. The responses are very individual. For a lot of people [a type of fibre called] arabinoxylan clearly reduced cholesterol while the fibre inulin had no effect. But in some people, it was the complete opposite.”
Eight years ago, Stanford's Michael Snyder began studying how continuous glucose monitors could be used by patients to gain real-time updates on their blood sugar levels, transmitted directly to their phone.
The Snyder Lab, Stanford Medicine
Because of studies like these, interest in precision nutrition approaches has exploded in recent years. In January, the National Institutes of Health announced that they are spending $170 million on a five year, multi-center initiative which aims to develop algorithms based on a whole range of data sources from blood sugar to sleep, exercise, stress, microbiome and even genomic information which can help predict which diets are most suitable for a particular individual.
“There's so many different factors which influence what you put into your mouth but also what happens to different types of nutrients and how that ultimately affects your health, which means you can’t have a one-size-fits-all set of nutritional guidelines for everyone,” says Bruce Y. Lee, professor of health policy and management at the City University of New York Graduate School of Public Health.
With the falling costs of genomic sequencing, other precision nutrition clinical trials are choosing to look at whether our genomes alone can yield key information about what our diets should look like, an emerging field of research known as nutrigenomics.
The ASPIRE-DNA clinical trial at Imperial College London is aiming to see whether particular genetic variants can be used to classify individuals into two groups, those who are more glucose sensitive to fat and those who are more sensitive to carbohydrates. By following a tailored diet based on these sensitivities, the trial aims to see whether it can prevent people with pre-diabetes from developing the disease.
But while much hope is riding on these trials, even precision nutrition advocates caution that the field remains in the very earliest of stages. Lars-Oliver Klotz, professor of nutrigenomics at Friedrich-Schiller-University in Jena, Germany, says that while the overall goal is to identify means of avoiding nutrition-related diseases, genomic data alone is unlikely to be sufficient to prevent obesity and type 2 diabetes.
“Genome data is rather simple to acquire these days as sequencing techniques have dramatically advanced in recent years,” he says. “However, the predictive value of just genome sequencing is too low in the case of obesity and prediabetes.”
Others say that while genomic data can yield useful information in terms of how different people metabolize different types of fat and specific nutrients such as B vitamins, there is a need for more research before it can be utilized in an algorithm for making dietary recommendations.
“I think it’s a little early,” says Eileen Gibney, a professor at University College Dublin. “We’ve identified a limited number of gene-nutrient interactions so far, but we need more randomized control trials of people with different genetic profiles on the same diet, to see whether they respond differently, and if that can be explained by their genetic differences.”
Some start-ups have already come unstuck for promising too much, or pushing recommendations which are not based on scientifically rigorous trials. The world of precision nutrition apps was dubbed a ‘Wild West’ by some commentators after the founders of uBiome – a start-up which offered nutritional recommendations based on information obtained from sequencing stool samples –were charged with fraud last year. The weight-loss app Noom, which was valued at $3.7 billion in May 2021, has been criticized on Twitter by a number of users who claimed that its recommendations have led to them developed eating disorders.
With precision nutrition apps marketing their technology at healthy individuals, question marks have also been raised about the value which can be gained through non-diabetics monitoring their blood sugar through CGM. While some small studies have found that wearing a CGM can make overweight or obese individuals more motivated to exercise, there is still a lack of conclusive evidence showing that this translates to improved health.
However, independent researchers remain intrigued by the technology, and say that the wealth of data generated through such apps could be used to help further stratify the different types of people who become at risk of developing type 2 diabetes.
“CGM not only enables a longer sampling time for capturing glucose levels, but will also capture lifestyle factors,” says Robert Wagner, a diabetes researcher at University Hospital Düsseldorf. “It is probable that it can be used to identify many clusters of prediabetic metabolism and predict the risk of diabetes and its complications, but maybe also specific cardiometabolic risk constellations. However, we still don’t know which forms of diabetes can be prevented by such approaches and how feasible and long-lasting such self-feedback dietary modifications are.”
Snyder himself has now been wearing a CGM for eight years, and he credits the insights it provides with helping him to manage his own diabetes. “My CGM still gives me novel insights into what foods and behaviors affect my glucose levels,” he says.
He is now looking to run clinical trials with his group at Stanford to see whether following a precision nutrition approach based on CGM and microbiome data, combined with other health information, can be used to reverse signs of pre-diabetes. If it proves successful, January AI may look to incorporate microbiome data in future.
“Ultimately, what I want to do is be able take people’s poop samples, maybe a blood draw, and say, ‘Alright, based on these parameters, this is what I think is going to spike you,’ and then have a CGM to test that out,” he says. “Getting very predictive about this, so right from the get go, you can have people better manage their health and then use the glucose monitor to help follow that.”