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."
In November 2020, messenger RNA catapulted into the public consciousness when the first COVID-19 vaccines were authorized for emergency use. Around the same time, an equally groundbreaking yet relatively unheralded application of mRNA technology was taking place at a London hospital.
Over the past two decades, there's been increasing interest in harnessing mRNA — molecules present in all of our cells that act like digital tape recorders, copying instructions from DNA in the cell nucleus and carrying them to the protein-making structures — to create a whole new class of therapeutics.
Scientists realized that artificial mRNA, designed in the lab, could be used to instruct our cells to produce certain antibodies, turning our bodies into vaccine-making factories, or to recognize and attack tumors. More recently, researchers recognized that mRNA could also be used to make another groundbreaking technology far more accessible to more patients: gene editing. The gene-editing tool CRISPR has generated plenty of hype for its potential to cure inherited diseases. But delivering CRISPR to the body is complicated and costly.
"Most gene editing involves taking cells out of the patient, treating them and then giving them back, which is an extremely expensive process," explains Drew Weissman, professor of medicine at the University of Pennsylvania, who was involved in developing the mRNA technology behind the COVID-19 vaccines.
But last November, a Massachusetts-based biotech company called Intellia Therapeutics showed it was possible to use mRNA to make the CRISPR system inside the body, eliminating the need to extract cells out of the body and edit them in a lab. Just as mRNA can instruct our cells to produce antibodies against a viral infection, it can also teach them to produce the two molecular components that make up CRISPR — a guide molecule and a cutting protein — to snip out a problem gene.
"The pandemic has really shown that not only are mRNA approaches viable, they could in certain circumstances be vastly superior to more traditional technologies."
In Intellia's London-based clinical trial, the company applied this for the first time in a patient with a rare inherited liver disease known as hereditary transthyretin amyloidosis with polyneuropathy. The disease causes a toxic protein to build up in a person's organs and is typically fatal. In a company press release, Intellia's president and CEO John Leonard swiftly declared that its mRNA-based CRISPR therapy could usher in a "new era of potential genome editing cures."
Weissman predicts that turning CRISPR into an affordable therapy will become the next major frontier for mRNA over the coming decade. His lab is currently working on an mRNA-based CRISPR treatment for sickle cell disease. More than 300,000 babies are born with sickle cell every year, mainly in lower income nations.
"There is a FDA-approved cure, but it involves taking the bone marrow out of the person, and then giving it back which is prohibitively expensive," he says. It also requires a patient to have a matched bone marrow done. "We give an intravenous injection of mRNA lipid nanoparticles that target CRISPR to the bone marrow stem cells in the patient, which is easy, and much less expensive."
Meanwhile, the overwhelming success of the COVID-19 vaccines has focused attention on other ways of using mRNA to bolster the immune system against threats ranging from other infectious diseases to cancer.
The practicality of mRNA vaccines – relatively small quantities are required to induce an antibody response – coupled with their adaptable design, mean companies like Moderna are now targeting pathogens like Zika, chikungunya and cytomegalovirus, or CMV, which previously considered commercially unviable for vaccine developers. This is because outbreaks have been relatively sporadic, and these viruses mainly affect people in low-income nations who can't afford to pay premium prices for a vaccine. But mRNA technology means that jabs could be produced on a flexible basis, when required, at relatively low cost.
Other scientists suggest that mRNA could even provide a means of developing a universal influenza vaccine, a goal that's long been the Holy Grail for vaccinologists around the world.
"The mRNA technology allows you to pick out bits of the virus that you want to induce immunity to," says Michael Mulqueen, vice president of business development at eTheRNA, a Belgium-based biotech that's developing mRNA-based vaccines for malaria and HIV, as well as various forms of cancer. "This means you can get the immune system primed to the bits of the virus that don't vary so much between strains. So you could actually have a single vaccine that protects against a whole raft of different variants of the same virus, offering more universal coverage."
Before mRNA became synonymous with vaccines, its biggest potential was for cancer treatments. BioNTech, the German biotech company that collaborated with Pfizer to develop the first authorized COVID-19 vaccine, was initially founded to utilize mRNA for personalized cancer treatments, and the company remains interested in cancers ranging from melanoma to breast cancer.
One of the major hurdles in treating cancer has been the fact that tumors can look very different from one person to the next. It's why conventional approaches, such as chemotherapy or radiation, don't work for every patient. But weaponizing mRNA against cancer primes the immune cells with the tumor's specific genetic sequence, training the patient's body to attack their own unique type of cancer.
"It means you're able to think about personalizing cancer treatments down to specific subgroups of patients," says Mulqueen. "For example, eTheRNA are developing a renal cell carcinoma treatment which will be targeted at around 20% of these patients, who have specific tumor types. We're hoping to take that to human trials next year, but the challenge is trying to identify the right patients for the treatment at an early stage."
Repairing Damaged mRNA
While hopes are high that mRNA could usher in new cancer treatments and make CRISPR more accessible, a growing number of companies are also exploring an alternative to gene editing, known as RNA editing.
In genetic disorders, the mRNA in certain cells is impaired due to a rogue gene defect, and so the body ceases to produce a particular vital protein. Instead of permanently deleting the problem gene with CRISPR, the idea behind RNA editing is to inject small pieces of synthetic mRNA to repair the existing mRNA. Scientists think this approach will allow normal protein production to resume.
Over the past few years, this approach has gathered momentum, as some researchers have recognized that it holds certain key advantages over CRISPR. Companies from Belgium to Japan are now looking at RNA editing to treat all kinds of disorders, from Huntingdon's disease, to amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS, and certain types of cancer.
"With RNA editing, you don't need to make any changes to the DNA," explains Daniel de Boer, CEO of Dutch biotech ProQR, which is looking to treat rare genetic disorders that cause blindness. "Changes to the DNA are permanent, so if something goes wrong, that may not be desirable. With RNA editing, it's a temporary change, so we dose patients with our drugs once or twice a year."
Last month, ProQR reported a landmark case study, in which a patient with a rare form of blindness called Leber congenital amaurosis, which affects the retina at the back of the eye, recovered vision after three months of treatment.
"We have seen that this RNA therapy restores vision in people that were completely blind for a year or so," says de Boer. "They were able to see again, to read again. We think there are a large number of other genetic diseases we could go after with this technology. There are thousands of different mutations that can lead to blindness, and we think this technology can target approximately 25% of them."
Ultimately, there's likely to be a role for both RNA editing and CRISPR, depending on the disease. "I think CRISPR is ideally suited for illnesses where you would like to permanently correct a genetic defect," says Joshua Rosenthal of the Marine Biology Laboratory in Chicago. "Whereas RNA editing could be used to treat things like pain, where you might want to reset a neural circuit temporarily over a shorter period of time."
Much of this research has been accelerated by the COVID-19 pandemic, which has played a major role in bringing mRNA to the forefront of people's minds as a therapeutic.
"The pandemic has really shown that not only are mRNA approaches viable, they could in certain circumstances be vastly superior to more traditional technologies," says Mulqueen. "In the future, I would not be surprised if many of the top pharma products are mRNA derived."
"Making Sense of Science" is a monthly podcast that features interviews with leading medical and scientific experts about the latest developments and the big ethical and societal questions they raise. This episode is hosted by science and biotech journalist Emily Mullin, summer editor of the award-winning science outlet Leaps.org.