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.
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.”