Genomics has begun its golden age. Just 20 years ago, sequencing a single genome cost nearly $3 billion and took over a decade. Today, the same feat can be achieved for a few hundred dollars and the better part of a day . Suddenly, the prospect of sequencing not just individuals, but whole populations, has become feasible.
The genetic differences between humans may seem meager, only around 0.1 percent of the genome on average, but this variation can have profound effects on an individual's risk of disease, responsiveness to medication, and even the dosage level that would work best.
Already, initiatives like the U.K.'s 100,000 Genomes Project - now expanding to 1 million genomes - and other similarly massive sequencing projects in Iceland and the U.S., have begun collecting population-scale data in order to capture and study this variation.
The resulting data sets are immensely valuable to researchers and drug developers working to design new 'precision' medicines and diagnostics, and to gain insights that may benefit patients. Yet, because the majority of this data comes from developed countries with well-established scientific and medical infrastructure, the data collected so far is heavily biased towards Western populations with largely European ancestry.
This presents a startling and fast-emerging problem: groups that are under-represented in these datasets are likely to benefit less from the new wave of therapeutics, diagnostics, and insights, simply because they were tailored for the genetic profiles of people with European ancestry.
We may indeed be approaching a golden age of genomics-enabled precision medicine. But if the data bias persists then there is a risk, as with most golden ages throughout history, that the benefits will not be equally accessible to all, and existing inequalities will only be exacerbated.
To remedy the situation, a number of initiatives have sprung up to sequence genomes of under-represented groups, adding them to the datasets and ensuring that they too will benefit from the rapidly unfolding genomic revolution.
Global Gene Corp
The idea behind Global Gene Corp was born eight years ago in Harvard when Sumit Jamuar, co-founder and CEO, met up with his two other co-founders, both experienced geneticists, for a coffee.
"They were discussing the limitless applications of understanding your genetic code," said Jamuar, a business executive from New Delhi.
"And so, being a technology enthusiast type, I was excited and I turned to them and said hey, this is incredible! Could you sequence me and give me some insights? And they actually just turned around and said no, because it's not going to be useful for you - there's not enough reference for what a good Sumit looks like."
What started as a curiosity-driven conversation on the power of genomics ended with a commitment to tackle one of the field's biggest roadblocks - its lack of global representation.
Jamuar set out to begin with India, which has about 20 percent of the world's population, including over 4000 different ethnicities, but contributes less than 2 percent of genomic data, he told Leaps.org.
Eight years later, Global Gene Corp's sequencing initiative is well underway, and is the largest in the history of the Indian subcontinent. The program is being carried out in collaboration with biotech giant Regeneron, with support from the Indian government, local communities, and the Indian healthcare ecosystem. In August 2020, Global Gene Corp's work was recognized through the $1 million 2020 Roddenberry award for organizations that advance the vision of 'Star Trek' creator Gene Roddenberry to better humanity.
This problem has already begun to manifest itself in, for example, much higher levels of genetic misdiagnosis among non-Europeans tested for their risk of certain diseases, such as hypertrophic cardiomyopathy - an inherited disease of the heart muscle.
Global Gene Corp also focuses on developing and implementing AI and machine learning tools to make sense of the deluge of genomic data. These tools are increasingly used by both industry and academia to guide future research by identifying particularly promising or clinically interesting genetic variants. But if the underlying data is skewed European, then the effectiveness of the computational analysis - along with the future advances and avenues of research that emerge from it - will be skewed towards Europeans too.
This problem has already begun to manifest itself in, for example, much higher levels of genetic misdiagnosis among non-Europeans tested for their risk of certain diseases, such as hypertrophic cardiomyopathy - an inherited disease of the heart muscle. Most of the genetic variants used in these tests were identified as being causal for the disease from studies of European genomes. However, many of these variants differ both in their distribution and clinical significance across populations, leading to many patients of non-European ancestry receiving false-positive test results - as their benign genetic variants were misclassified as pathogenic. Had even a small number of genomes from other ethnicities been included in the initial studies, these misdiagnoses could have been avoided.
"Unless we have a data set which is unbiased and representative, we're never going to achieve the success that we want," Jamuar says.
"When Siri was first launched, she could hardly recognize an accent which was not of a certain type, so if I was trying to speak to Siri, I would have to repeat myself multiple times and try to mimic an accent which wasn't my accent so that she could understand it.
"But over time the voice recognition technology improved tremendously because the training data was expanded to include people of very diverse backgrounds and their accents, so the algorithms were trained to be able to pick that up and it dramatically improved the technology. That's the way we have to think about it - without that good-quality diverse data, we will never be able to achieve the full potential of the computational tools."
While mapping India's rich genetic diversity has been the organization's primary focus so far, they plan, in time, to expand their work to other under-represented groups in Asia, the Middle East, Africa, and Latin America.
"As other like-minded people and partners join the mission, it just accelerates the achievement of what we have set out to do, which is to map out and organize the world's genomic diversity so that we can enable high-quality life and longevity benefits for everyone, everywhere," Jamuar says.
Empowering African Genomics
Africa is the birthplace of our species, and today still retains an inordinate amount of total human genetic diversity. Groups that left Africa and went on to populate the rest of the world, some 50 to 100,000 years ago, were likely small in number and only took a fraction of the total genetic diversity with them. This ancient bottleneck means that no other group in the world can match the level of genetic diversity seen in modern African populations.
Despite Africa's central importance in understanding the history and extent of human genetic diversity, the genomics of African populations remains wildly understudied. Addressing this disparity has become a central focus of the H3Africa Consortium, an initiative formally launched in 2012 with support from the African Academy of Sciences, the U.S. National Institutes of Health, and the UK's Wellcome Trust. Today, H3Africa supports over 50 projects across the continent, on an array of different research areas in genetics relevant to the health and heredity of Africans.
"Africa is the cradle of Humankind. So what that really means is that the populations that are currently living in Africa are among some of the oldest populations on the globe, and we know that the longer populations have had to go through evolutionary phases, the more variation there is in the genomes of people who live presently," says Zane Lombard, a principal investigator at H3Africa and Associate Professor of Human Genetics at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, South Africa.
"So for that reason, African populations carry a huge amount of genetic variation and diversity, which is pretty much uncaptured. There's still a lot to learn as far as novel variation is concerned by looking at and studying African genomes."
A recent landmark H3Africa study, led by Lombard and published in Nature in October, sequenced the genomes of over 400 African individuals from 50 ethno-linguistic groups - many of which had never been sampled before.
Despite the relatively modest number of individuals sequenced in the study, over three million previously undescribed genetic variants were found, and complex patterns of ancestral migration were uncovered.
"In some of these ethno-linguistic groups they don't have a word for DNA, so we've had to really think about how to make sure that we communicate the purposes of different studies to participants so that you have true informed consent," says Lombard.
"The objective," she explained, "was to try and fill some of the gaps for many of these populations for which we didn't have any whole genome sequences or any genetic variation data...because if we're thinking about the future of precision medicine, if the patient is a member of a specific group where we don't know a lot about the genomic variation that exists in that group, it makes it really difficult to start thinking about clinical interpretation of their data."
From H3Africa's conception, the consortium's goal has not only been to better represent Africa's staggering genetic diversity in genomic data sets, but also to build Africa's domestic genomics capabilities and empower a new generation of African researchers. By doing so, the hope is that Africans will be able to set their own genomics agenda, and leapfrog to new and better ways of doing the work.
"The training that has happened on the continent and the number of new scientists, new students, and fellows that have come through the process and are now enabled to start their own research groups, to grow their own research in their countries, to be a spokesperson for genomics research in their countries, and to build that political will to do these larger types of sequencing initiatives - that is really a significant outcome from H3Africa as well. Over and above all the science that's coming out," Lombard says.
"What has been created through H3Africa is just this locus of researchers and scientists and bioethicists who have the same goal at heart - to work towards adjusting the data bias and making sure that all global populations are represented in genomics."
Glioblastoma is an aggressive and deadly brain cancer, causing more than 10,000 deaths in the US per year. In the last 30 years there has only been limited improvement in the survival rate despite advances in radiation therapy and chemotherapy. Today the typical survival rate is just 14 months and that extra time is spent suffering from the adverse and often brutal effects of radiation and chemotherapy.
Scientists are trying to design more effective treatments for glioblastoma with fewer side effects. Now, a team at the Department of Neurosurgery at Houston Methodist Hospital has created a magnetic helmet-based treatment called oncomagnetic therapy: a promising non-invasive treatment for shrinking cancerous tumors. In the first patient tried, the device was able to reduce the tumor of a glioblastoma patient by 31%. The researchers caution, however, that much more research is needed to determine its safety and effectiveness.
How It Works
“The whole idea originally came from a conversation I had with General Norman Schwarzkopf, a supposedly brilliant military strategist,” says Dr David Baskin, professor of neurosurgery and leader of the effort at Houston Methodist. “I asked him what is the secret to your success and he said, ‘Energy. Take out the power grid and the enemy can't communicate.’ So I thought about what supplies [energy to] cancer, especially brain cancer.”
Baskin came up with the idea of targeting the mitochondria, which process and produce energy for cancer cells.
This is the most exciting thing in glioblastoma treatment I've seen since I've been a neurosurgeon but it is very preliminary.”
The magnetic helmet creates a powerful oscillating magnetic field. At a set range of frequencies and timings, it disrupts the flow of electrons in the mitochondria of cancer cells. This leads to a release of certain chemicals called ROS (Reactive Oxygen Species). In normal cells, this excess ROS is much lower, and is neutralized by other chemicals called antioxidants.
However, cancer cells already have more ROS: they grow rapidly and uncontrollably so their mitochondria need to produce more energy which in turn generates more ROS. By using the powerful magnetic field, levels of ROS get so high that the malignant cells are torn apart.
The biggest challenge was working out the specific range of frequencies and timing parameters they needed to use to kill cancer cells. It took skill, intuition, luck and lots of experiments. The helmet could theoretically be used to treat all types of glioblastoma.
Developing the magnetic helmet was a collaborative process. Dr Santosh Helekar is a neuroscientist at Houston Methodist Research Institute and the director of oncomagnetics (magnetic cancer therapies) at the Peak Center in Houston Methodist Hospital. His previous invention with colleagues gave the team a starting point to build on. “About 7 years back I developed a portable brain magnetic stimulation device to conduct brain research,” Helekar says. “We [then] conducted a pilot clinical trial in stroke patients. The results were promising.”
Helekar presented his findings to neurosurgeons including Baskin. They decided to collaborate. With a team of scientists behind them, they modified the device to kill cancer cells.
The magnetic helmet studied for treatment of glioblastoma
Dr. David Baskin
After success in the lab, the team got FDA approval to conduct a compassionate trial in a 53-year-old man with end-stage glioblastoma. He had tried every other treatment available. But within 30 days of using the magnetic helmet his tumor shrank by 31%.
Sadly, 36 days into the treatment, the patient had an unrelated head injury due to a fall. The treatment was paused and he later died of the injury. Autopsy results of his brain highlighted the dramatic reduction in tumor cells.
Baskin says, “This is the most exciting thing in glioblastoma treatment I've seen since I've been a neurosurgeon but it is very preliminary.”
The helmet is part of a growing number of non-invasive cancer treatments. One device that is currently being used by glioblastoma patients is Optune. It uses electric fields called tumor treating fields to slow down cell division and has been through a successful phase 3 clinical trial.
The magnetic helmet has the promise to be another useful non-invasive treatment according to Professor Gabriel Zada, a neurosurgeon and director of the USC Brain Tumor Center. “We're learning that various electromagnetic fields and tumor treating fields appear to play a role in glioblastoma. So there is some precedent for this though the tumor treating fields work a little differently. I think there is major potential for it to be effective but of course it will require some trials.”
Professor Jonathan Sherman, a neurosurgeon and director of neuro-oncology at West Virginia University, reiterates the need for further testing. “It sounds interesting but it’s too early to tell what kind of long-term efficacy you get. We do not have enough data. Also if you’re disrupting [the magnetic field] you could negatively impact a patient. You could be affecting the normal conduction of electromagnetic activity in the brain.”
The team is currently extending their research. They are now testing the treatment in two other patients with end-stage glioblastoma. The immediate challenge is getting FDA approval for those at an earlier stage of the disease who are more likely to benefit.
Baskin and the team are designing a clinical trial in the U.S., .U.K. and Germany. After positive results in cell cultures, they’re in negotiations to collaborate with other researchers in using the technology for lung and breast cancer. With breast cancer, the soft tissue is easier to access so a magnetic device could be worn over the breast.
“My hope is to develop a treatment to treat and hopefully cure glioblastoma without radiation or chemotherapy,” Baskin says. “We're onto a strategy that could make a huge difference for patients with this disease and probably for patients with many other forms of cancer.”
Astronauts at the International Space Station today depend on pre-packaged, freeze-dried food, plus some fresh produce thanks to regular resupply missions. This supply chain, however, will not be available on trips further out, such as the moon or Mars. So what are astronauts on long missions going to eat?
Going by the options available now, says Christel Paille, an engineer at the European Space Agency, a lunar expedition is likely to have only dehydrated foods. “So no more fresh product, and a limited amount of already hydrated product in cans.”
For the Mars mission, the situation is a bit more complex, she says. Prepackaged food could still constitute most of their food, “but combined with [on site] production of certain food products…to get them fresh.” A Mars mission isn’t right around the corner, but scientists are currently working on solutions for how to feed those astronauts. A number of boundary-pushing efforts are now underway.
The logistics of growing plants in space, of course, are very different from Earth. There is no gravity, sunlight, or atmosphere. High levels of ionizing radiation stunt plant growth. Plus, plants take up a lot of space, something that is, ironically, at a premium up there. These and special nutritional requirements of spacefarers have given scientists some specific and challenging problems.
To study fresh food production systems, NASA runs the Vegetable Production System (Veggie) on the ISS. Deployed in 2014, Veggie has been growing salad-type plants on “plant pillows” filled with growth media, including a special clay and controlled-release fertilizer, and a passive wicking watering system. They have had some success growing leafy greens and even flowers.
"Ideally, we would like a system which has zero waste and, therefore, needs zero input, zero additional resources."
A larger farming facility run by NASA on the ISS is the Advanced Plant Habitat to study how plants grow in space. This fully-automated, closed-loop system has an environmentally controlled growth chamber and is equipped with sensors that relay real-time information about temperature, oxygen content, and moisture levels back to the ground team at Kennedy Space Center in Florida. In December 2020, the ISS crew feasted on radishes grown in the APH.
“But salad doesn’t give you any calories,” says Erik Seedhouse, a researcher at the Applied Aviation Sciences Department at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Florida. “It gives you some minerals, but it doesn’t give you a lot of carbohydrates.” Seedhouse also noted in his 2020 book Life Support Systems for Humans in Space: “Integrating the growing of plants into a life support system is a fiendishly difficult enterprise.” As a case point, he referred to the ESA’s Micro-Ecological Life Support System Alternative (MELiSSA) program that has been running since 1989 to integrate growing of plants in a closed life support system such as a spacecraft.
Paille, one of the scientists running MELiSSA, says that the system aims to recycle the metabolic waste produced by crew members back into the metabolic resources required by them: “The aim is…to come [up with] a closed, sustainable system which does not [need] any logistics resupply.” MELiSSA uses microorganisms to process human excretions in order to harvest carbon dioxide and nitrate to grow plants. “Ideally, we would like a system which has zero waste and, therefore, needs zero input, zero additional resources,” Paille adds.
Microorganisms play a big role as “fuel” in food production in extreme places, including in space. Last year, researchers discovered Methylobacterium strains on the ISS, including some never-seen-before species. Kasthuri Venkateswaran of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, one of the researchers involved in the study, says, “[The] isolation of novel microbes that help to promote the plant growth under stressful conditions is very essential… Certain bacteria can decompose complex matter into a simple nutrient [that] the plants can absorb.” These microbes, which have already adapted to space conditions—such as the absence of gravity and increased radiation—boost various plant growth processes and help withstand the harsh physical environment.
MELiSSA, says Paille, has demonstrated that it is possible to grow plants in space. “This is important information because…we didn’t know whether the space environment was affecting the biological cycle of the plant…[and of] cyanobacteria.” With the scientific and engineering aspects of a closed, self-sustaining life support system becoming clearer, she says, the next stage is to find out if it works in space. They plan to run tests recycling human urine into useful components, including those that promote plant growth.
The MELiSSA pilot plant uses rats currently, and needs to be translated for human subjects for further studies. “Demonstrating the process and well-being of a rat in terms of providing water, sufficient oxygen, and recycling sufficient carbon dioxide, in a non-stressful manner, is one thing,” Paille says, “but then, having a human in the loop [means] you also need to integrate user interfaces from the operational point of view.”
Growing food in space comes with an additional caveat that underscores its high stakes. Barbara Demmig-Adams from the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at the University of Colorado Boulder explains, “There are conditions that actually will hurt your health more than just living here on earth. And so the need for nutritious food and micronutrients is even greater for an astronaut than for [you and] me.”
Demmig-Adams, who has worked on increasing the nutritional quality of plants for long-duration spaceflight missions, also adds that there is no need to reinvent the wheel. Her work has focused on duckweed, a rather unappealingly named aquatic plant. “It is 100 percent edible, grows very fast, it’s very small, and like some other floating aquatic plants, also produces a lot of protein,” she says. “And here on Earth, studies have shown that the amount of protein you get from the same area of these floating aquatic plants is 20 times higher compared to soybeans.”
Aquatic plants also tend to grow well in microgravity: “Plants that float on water, they don’t respond to gravity, they just hug the water film… They don’t need to know what’s up and what’s down.” On top of that, she adds, “They also produce higher concentrations of really important micronutrients, antioxidants that humans need, especially under space radiation.” In fact, duckweed, when subjected to high amounts of radiation, makes nutrients called carotenoids that are crucial for fighting radiation damage. “We’ve looked at dozens and dozens of plants, and the duckweed makes more of this radiation fighter…than anything I’ve seen before.”
Despite all the scientific advances and promising leads, no one really knows what the conditions so far out in space will be and what new challenges they will bring. As Paille says, “There are known unknowns and unknown unknowns.”
One definite “known” for astronauts is that growing their food is the ideal scenario for space travel in the long term since “[taking] all your food along with you, for best part of two years, that’s a lot of space and a lot of weight,” as Seedhouse says. That said, once they land on Mars, they’d have to think about what to eat all over again. “Then you probably want to start building a greenhouse and growing food there [as well],” he adds.
And that is a whole different challenge altogether.