Earlier this year, California-based Ambry Genetics announced that it was discontinuing a test meant to estimate a person's risk of developing prostate or breast cancer. The test looks for variations in a person's DNA that are known to be associated with these cancers.
Known as a polygenic risk score, this type of test adds up the effects of variants in many genes — often in the dozens or hundreds — and calculates a person's risk of developing a particular health condition compared to other people. In this way, polygenic risk scores are different from traditional genetic tests that look for mutations in single genes, such as BRCA1 and BRCA2, which raise the risk of breast cancer.
Traditional genetic tests look for mutations that are relatively rare in the general population but have a large impact on a person's disease risk, like BRCA1 and BRCA2. By contrast, polygenic risk scores scan for more common genetic variants that, on their own, have a small effect on risk. Added together, however, they can raise a person's risk for developing disease.
These scores could become a part of routine healthcare in the next few years. Researchers are developing polygenic risk scores for cancer, heart, disease, diabetes and even depression. Before they can be rolled out widely, they'll have to overcome a key limitation: racial bias.
"The issue with these polygenic risk scores is that the scientific studies which they're based on have primarily been done in individuals of European ancestry," says Sara Riordan, president of the National Society of Genetics Counselors. These scores are calculated by comparing the genetic data of people with and without a particular disease. To make these scores accurate, researchers need genetic data from tens or hundreds of thousands of people.
Myriad's old test would have shown that a Black woman had twice as high of a risk for breast cancer compared to the average woman even if she was at low or average risk.
A 2018 analysis found that 78% of participants included in such large genetic studies, known as genome-wide association studies, were of European descent. That's a problem, because certain disease-associated genetic variants don't appear equally across different racial and ethnic groups. For example, a particular variant in the TTR gene, known as V1221, occurs more frequently in people of African descent. In recent years, the variant has been found in 3 to 4 percent of individuals of African ancestry in the United States. Mutations in this gene can cause protein to build up in the heart, leading to a higher risk of heart failure. A polygenic risk score for heart disease based on genetic data from mostly white people likely wouldn't give accurate risk information to African Americans.
Accuracy in genetic testing matters because such polygenic risk scores could help patients and their doctors make better decisions about their healthcare.
For instance, if a polygenic risk score determines that a woman is at higher-than-average risk of breast cancer, her doctor might recommend more frequent mammograms — X-rays that take a picture of the breast. Or, if a risk score reveals that a patient is more predisposed to heart attack, a doctor might prescribe preventive statins, a type of cholesterol-lowering drug.
"Let's be clear, these are not diagnostic tools," says Alicia Martin, a population and statistical geneticist at the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard. "We can't use a polygenic score to say you will or will not get breast cancer or have a heart attack."
But combining a patient's polygenic risk score with other factors that affect disease risk — like age, weight, medication use or smoking status — may provide a better sense of how likely they are to develop a specific health condition than considering any one risk factor one its own. The accuracy of polygenic risk scores becomes even more important when considering that these scores may be used to guide medication prescription or help patients make decisions about preventive surgery, such as a mastectomy.
In a study published in September, researchers used results from large genetics studies of people with European ancestry and data from the UK Biobank to calculate polygenic risk scores for breast and prostate cancer for people with African, East Asian, European and South Asian ancestry. They found that they could identify individuals at higher risk of breast and prostate cancer when they scaled the risk scores within each group, but the authors say this is only a temporary solution. Recruiting more diverse participants for genetics studies will lead to better cancer detection and prevent, they conclude.
Recent efforts to do just that are expected to make these scores more accurate in the future. Until then, some genetics companies are struggling to overcome the European bias in their tests.
Acknowledging the limitations of its polygenic risk score, Ambry Genetics said in April that it would stop offering the test until it could be recalibrated. The company launched the test, known as AmbryScore, in 2018.
"After careful consideration, we have decided to discontinue AmbryScore to help reduce disparities in access to genetic testing and to stay aligned with current guidelines," the company said in an email to customers. "Due to limited data across ethnic populations, most polygenic risk scores, including AmbryScore, have not been validated for use in patients of diverse backgrounds." (The company did not make a spokesperson available for an interview for this story.)
In September 2020, the National Comprehensive Cancer Network updated its guidelines to advise against the use of polygenic risk scores in routine patient care because of "significant limitations in interpretation." The nonprofit, which represents 31 major cancer cancers across the United States, said such scores could continue to be used experimentally in clinical trials, however.
Holly Pederson, director of Medical Breast Services at the Cleveland Clinic, says the realization that polygenic risk scores may not be accurate for all races and ethnicities is relatively recent. Pederson worked with Salt Lake City-based Myriad Genetics, a leading provider of genetic tests, to improve the accuracy of its polygenic risk score for breast cancer.
The company announced in August that it had recalibrated the test, called RiskScore, for women of all ancestries. Previously, Myriad did not offer its polygenic risk score to women who self-reported any ancestry other than sole European or Ashkenazi ancestry.
"Black women, while they have a similar rate of breast cancer to white women, if not lower, had twice as high of a polygenic risk score because the development and validation of the model was done in white populations," Pederson said of the old test. In other words, Myriad's old test would have shown that a Black woman had twice as high of a risk for breast cancer compared to the average woman even if she was at low or average risk.
To develop and validate the new score, Pederson and other researchers assessed data from more than 275,000 women, including more than 31,000 African American women and nearly 50,000 women of East Asian descent. They looked at 56 different genetic variants associated with ancestry and 93 associated with breast cancer. Interestingly, they found that at least 95% of the breast cancer variants were similar amongst the different ancestries.
The company says the resulting test is now more accurate for all women across the board, but Pederson cautions that it's still slightly less accurate for Black women.
"It's not only the lack of data from Black women that leads to inaccuracies and a lack of validation in these types of risk models, it's also the pure genomic diversity of Africa," she says, noting that Africa is the most genetically diverse continent on the planet. "We just need more data, not only in American Black women but in African women to really further characterize that continent."
Martin says it's problematic that such scores are most accurate for white people because they could further exacerbate health disparities in traditionally underserved groups, such as Black Americans. "If we were to set up really representative massive genetic studies, we would do a much better job at predicting genetic risk for everybody," she says.
Earlier this year, the National Institutes of Health awarded $38 million to researchers to improve the accuracy of polygenic risk scores in diverse populations. Researchers will create new genome datasets and pool information from existing ones in an effort to diversify the data that polygenic scores rely on. They plan to make these datasets available to other scientists to use.
"By having adequate representation, we can ensure that the results of a genetic test are widely applicable," Riordan says.
At age 52, Glen Rouse suffered from arm weakness and a lot of muscle twitches. “I first thought something was wrong when I could not throw a 50-pound bag of dog food over the tailgate of my truck—something I use to do effortlessly,” said the 54-year-old resident of Anderson, California, about three hours north of San Francisco.
In August, Rouse retired as a forester for a private timber company, a job he had held for 31 years. The impetus: amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS, a progressive neuromuscular disease that is commonly known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, named after the New York Yankees’ first baseman who succumbed to it less than a month shy of his 38th birthday in 1941. ALS eventually robs an individual of the ability to talk, walk, chew, swallow and breathe.
Rouse is now dependent on ventilation through a nasal mask and uses a powerchair to get around. “I can no longer walk or use my arms very well,” he said. “I can still move my wrists and fingers. I can also transfer from my chair to the toilet if I have two of my friends help me.”
It’s “shocking” that modern medicine has very little to offer to people with this devastating condition, Rouse said. But there is hope on the horizon. Yesterday, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved Relyvrio, a drug made up of two parts, sodium phenylbutyrate and taurursodiol, to treat patients with ALS.
“This approval provides another important treatment option for ALS, a life-threatening disease that currently has no cure,” said Billy Dunn, director of the Office of Neuroscience in the FDA’s Center for Drug Evaluation and Research, in a statement. “The FDA remains committed to facilitating the development of additional ALS treatments.”
Until this point, the FDA had approved only two other medications—Riluzole (rilutek) in 1995 and Radicava (edaravone) in 2017—to extend life in patients with ALS, which typically kills within two to five years after diagnosis. That’s why earlier this week, Rouse was optimistic about the FDA’s likely approval of a controversial new drug for ALS.
When Relyvrio is taken in addition to Riluzole, it appears to slow functional decline by an additional 25 percent and extend life by another 6 to 10 months, said Richard Bedlak, director of the Duke ALS Clinic. “It is not a cure, but it is definitely a step forward.”
“The whole ALS community is extremely excited about it,” he said the day before Relyvrio’s expected approval. “We are very hopeful. We’re on pins and needles.”
A study of 137 ALS patients did not result in “substantial evidence” that Relyvrio was effective, the agency’s Peripheral and Central Nervous System Drugs Advisory Committee concluded in March. However, after some persuasion from FDA officials, patients and their families, the committee met again and decided to recommend approving the drug.
In January 2019, following an ALS diagnosis at age 58 in October the previous year, Jeff Sarnacki, of Chester, Maryland, was accepted into a trial for Relyvrio. “Because of the trial, we did experience hope and a greater sense of help than had we not had that opportunity,” said Juliet Taylor, his wife and caregiver. They both believed the drug “worked for him in giving him more time.”
In June 2019, Sarnacki chose an open-label extension, offered to patients by drug researchers after a study ends, and took the active drug until he died peacefully at home under hospice care in May 2020, five days after his 60th birthday. A retired agent with the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives who later worked as a security consultant, Sarnacki lived about 19 months after diagnosis, which is shorter than the typical prognosis.
His symptoms began with leg cramps in fall 2017 and foot drop in early 2018. A feeding tube was placed in 2019, as it became necessary early in his illness, Taylor said. He also took Radicava and Riluzole, the two previously approved drugs, for his ALS. “We were both incredulous that, so many years after Lou Gehrig’s own diagnosis, there were so few treatments available,” she said.
The dearth of successful treatments for ALS is “certainly not for lack of trying,” said Karen Raley Steffens, a registered nurse and ALS support services coordinator at the Les Turner ALS Foundation in Skokie, Ill. “There are thousands of researchers and scientists all over the world working tirelessly to try to develop treatments for ALS.”
Unfortunately, she added, research takes time and exorbitant amounts of funding, while bureaucratic challenges persist. The rare disease also manifests and progresses in many different ways, so many treatments are needed.
As of 2017, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimated that more than 31,000 people in the U.S. live with ALS, and an average of 5,000 people are newly diagnosed every year. It is slightly more common in men than women. Most people are diagnosed between the ages of 55 and 75.
Most cases of ALS are sporadic, meaning that doctors don’t know the cause. There is about a one-year interval between symptom onset and an ALS diagnosis for most patients, so many motor neurons are lost by the time individuals can enroll in a clinical trial, said Richard Bedlack, professor of neurology and director of the Duke ALS Clinic in Durham, North Carolina.
Bedlack found the new drug, Relyvrio, to be “very promising,” which is why he testified to the FDA in favor of approval. (He’s a consultant and disease state speaker for multiple companies including Amylyx, manufacturer of Relyvrio.)
The “drug has different mechanisms of action than the currently approved treatments,” Bedlack said. He added that, when Relyvrio is taken in addition to Riluzole, it appears to slow functional decline by an additional 25 percent and extend life by another 6 to 10 months. “It is not a cure, but it is definitely a step forward.”
T. Scott Diesing, a neurohospitalist and director of general neurology at the University of Nebraska Medical Center in Omaha, said he hopes the drug is “as good as people anticipated it should be, because there are not too many options for these patients.”
"FDA went out on a limb in approving Relyvrio based on limited results from a small trial while a larger study remains in progress," said Florian P. Thomas, co-director of the ALS Center at Hackensack University Medical Center and the Meridian School of Medicine. "While it is definitely promising, clearly, the last word on this drug has not been spoken."
So far, Rouse's voice is holding up, but he knows the day will come when ALS will steal that and much more from him.
ALS is 100 percent fatal, with some patients dying as soon as a year after diagnosis. A few have lasted as long as 15 years, but those are the exceptions, Diesing said.
“If this drug can provide even months of additional life, or would maintain quality of life, that’s a big deal,” he noted, adding that “the patients are saying, ‘I know it’s not proven conclusively, but what do we have to lose?’ So, they would like to try it while additional studies are ongoing.” The drug has already been conditionally approved in Canada.
As his disease progresses, Rouse hopes to get a speech-to-text voice-generating computer that he can control with his eyes. So far, his voice is holding up, but he knows the day will come when ALS will steal that and much more from him. He works at I AM ALS, a patient-led community, and six of his friends have already died of the disease.
“Every time I lose a friend to ALS, I grieve and am sad but I resolve myself to keep working harder for them, myself and others,” Rouse said. “People living with ALS find great purpose in life advocating and trying to make a difference.”
The Friday Five covers important stories in health and science research that you may have missed - usually over the previous week, but today's episode is a lookback on important studies over the month of September.
Most recently, on September 27, pharmaceuticals Biogen and Eisai announced that a clinical trial showed their drug, lecanemab, can slow the rate of Alzheimer's disease. There are plenty of controversies and troubling ethical issues in science – and we get into many of them in our online magazine – but this news roundup focuses on scientific creativity and progress to give you a therapeutic dose of inspiration headed into the weekend and the new month.
This Friday Five episode covers the following studies published and announced over the past month:
- A new drug is shown to slow the rate of Alzheimer's disease
- The need for speed if you want to reduce your risk of dementia
- How to refreeze the north and south poles
- Ancient wisdom about Neti pots could pay off for Covid
- Two women, one man and a baby