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."
The first thing Jeroen Perk saw after he partially regained his sight nearly a decade ago was the outline of his guide dog Pedro.
“There was a white floor, and the dog was black,” recalls Perk, a 43-year-old investigator for the Dutch customs service. “I was crying. It was a very nice moment.”
Perk was diagnosed with retinitis pigmentosa as a child and had been blind since early adulthood. He has been able to use the implant placed into his retina in 2013 to help identify street crossings, and even ski and pursue archery. A video posted by the company that designed and manufactured the device indicates he’s a good shot.
Less black-and-white has been the journey Perk and others have been on after they were implanted with the Argus II, a second-generation device created by a Los Angeles-based company called Second Sight Medical Devices.
The Argus II uses the implant and a video camera embedded in a special pair of glasses to provide limited vision to those with retinitis pigmentosa, a genetic disease that causes cells in the retina to deteriorate. The camera feeds information to the implant, which sends electrical impulses into the retina to recapitulate what the camera sees. The impulses appear in the Argus II as a 60-pixel grid of blacks, grays and whites in the user’s eye that can render rough outlines of objects and their motion.
Smartphone and computer manufacturers typically stop issuing software upgrades to their devices after two or three years, eventually rendering them bricks. But is the smartphone approach acceptable for a device that helps restore the most crucial sense a human being possesses?
Ross Doerr, a retired disability rights attorney in Maine who received an Argus II in 2019, describes the field of vision as the equivalent of an index card held at arm’s length. Perk often brings objects close to his face to decipher them. Moreover, users must swivel their heads to take in visual data; moving their eyeballs does not work.
Despite its limitations, the Argus II beats the alternative. Perk no longer relies on his guide dog. Doerr was uplifted when he was able to see the outlines of Christmas trees at a holiday show.
“The fairy godmother department sort of reaches out and taps you on the shoulder once in a while,” Doerr says of his implant, which came about purely by chance. A surgeon treating his cataracts was partnered with the son of another surgeon who was implanting the devices, and he was referred.
Doerr had no reason to believe the shower of fairy dust wouldn’t continue. Second Sight held out promises that the Argus II recipients’ vision would gradually improve through upgrades to much higher pixel densities. The ability to recognize individual faces was even touted as a possibility. In the winter of 2020, Doerr was preparing to travel across the U.S. to Second Sight’s headquarters to receive an upgrade. But then COVID-19 descended, and the trip was canceled.
The pandemic also hit Second Sight’s bottom line. Doerr found out about its tribulations only from one of the company’s vision therapists, who told him the entire department was being laid off. Second Sight cut nearly 80% of its workforce in March 2020 and announced it would wind down operations.
Ross Doerr has mostly stopped using his Argus II, the result of combination of fear of losing its assistance from wear and tear and disdain for the company that brought it to market.
Second Sight’s implosion left some 350 Argus recipients in the metaphorical dark about what to do if their implants failed. Skeleton staff seem to have rarely responded to queries from their customers, at least based on the experiences of Perk and Doerr. And some recipients have unfortunately returned to the actual dark as well, as reports have surfaced of Argus II failures due to aging or worn-down parts.
Product support for complex products is remarkably uneven. Although the iconic Ford Mustang ceased production in the late 1960s, its parts market is so robust that it’s theoretically possible to assemble a new vehicle from recently crafted components. Conversely, smartphone and computer manufacturers typically stop issuing software upgrades to their devices after two or three years, eventually rendering them bricks. Consumers have accepted both extremes.
But is the smartphone approach acceptable for a device that helps restore the most crucial sense a human being possesses?
Margaret McLean, a senior fellow at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics at Santa Clara University in California, notes companies like Second Sight have a greater obligation for product support than other consumer product ventures.
“In this particular case, you have a great deal of risk that is involved in using this device, the implant, and the after care of this device,” she says. “You cannot, like with your car, decide that ‘I don’t like my Mustang anymore,’ and go out and buy a Corvette.”
And, whether the Argus II implant works or not, its physical presence can impact critical medical decisions. Doerr’s doctor wanted him to undergo an MRI to assist in diagnosing attacks of vertigo. But the physician was concerned his implant might interfere. With the latest available manufacturer advisories on his implant nearly a decade old, the procedure was held up. Doerr spent months importuning Second Sight through phone calls, emails and Facebook postings to learn if his implant was contraindicated with MRIs, which he never received. Although the cause of his vertigo was found without an MRI, Doerr was hardly assured.
“Put that into context for a minute. I get into a serious car accident. I end up in the emergency room, and I have a tag saying I have an implanted medical device,” he says. “You can’t do an MRI until you get the proper information from the company. Who’s going to answer the phone?”
Second Sight’s management did answer the call to revamp its business. It netted nearly $78 million through a private stock placement and an initial public offering last year. At the end of 2021, Second Sight had nearly $70 million in cash on hand, according to a recent filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission.
And while the Argus II is still touted at length on Second Sight’s home page, it appears little of its corporate coffers are earmarked toward its support. These days, the company is focused on obtaining federal approvals for Orion, a new implant that would go directly into the recipient’s brain and could be used to remedy blindness from a variety of causes. It obtained a $6.4 million grant from the National Institutes of Health in May 2021 to help develop Orion.
Presented with a list of written questions by email, Second Sight’s spokesperson, Dave Gentry of the investor relations firm Red Chip Companies, copied a subordinate with an abrupt message to “please handle.” That was the only response from a company representative. A call to Second Sight acting chief executive officer Scott Dunbar went unreturned.
Whether or not the Orion succeeds remains to be seen. The company’s SEC filings suggest a viable and FDA-approved device is years away, and that operational losses are expected for the “foreseeable future.” Second Sight reported zero revenue in 2020 or 2021.
Moreover, the experiences of the Argus II recipients could color the reception of future Second Sight products. Doerr notes that his insurer paid nearly $500,000 to implant his device and for training on how to use it.
“What’s the insurance industry going to say the next time this crops up?” Doerr asks, noting that the company’s reputation is “completely shot” with the recipients of its implants.
Perk, who made speeches to praise the Argus II and is still featured in a video on the Second Sight website, says he also no longer supports the company.
Jeroen Perk, an investigator for the Dutch customs service, cried for joy after partially regaining his sight, but he no longer trusts Second Sight, the company that provided his implant.
Nevertheless, Perk remains highly reliant on the technology. When he dropped an external component of his device in late 2020 and it broke, Perk briefly debated whether to remain blind or find a way to get his Argus II working again. Three months later, he was able to revive it by crowdsourcing parts, primarily from surgeons with spare components or other Argus II recipients who no longer use their devices. Perk now has several spare parts in reserve in case of future breakdowns.
Despite the frantic efforts to retain what little sight he has, Perk has no regrets about having the device implanted. And while he no longer trusts Second Sight, he is looking forward to possibly obtaining more advanced implants from companies in the Netherlands and Australia working on their own products.
Doerr suggests that biotech firms whose implants are distributed globally be bound to some sort of international treaty requiring them to service their products in perpetuity. Such treaties are still applied to the salvage rights for ships that sunk centuries ago, he notes.
“I think that in a global tech economy, that would be a good thing,” says McLean, the fellow at Santa Clara, “but I am not optimistic about it in the near term. Business incentives push toward return on share to stockholders, not to patients and other stakeholders. We likely need to rely on some combination of corporately responsibility…and [international] government regulation. It’s tough—the Paris Climate Accord implementation at a slow walk comes to mind.”
Unlike Perk, Doerr has mostly stopped using his Argus II, the result of combination of fear of losing its assistance from wear and tear and disdain for the company that brought it to market. At 70, Doerr says he does not have the time or energy to hold the company more accountable. And with Second Sight having gone through a considerable corporate reorganization, Doerr believes a lawsuit to compel it to better serve its Argus recipients would be nothing but an extremely costly longshot.
“It’s corporate America at its best,” he observes.
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.