Genetically Sequencing Healthy Babies Yielded Surprising Results
Today in Melrose, Massachusetts, Cora Stetson is the picture of good health, a bubbly precocious 2-year-old. But Cora has two separate mutations in the gene that produces a critical enzyme called biotinidase and her body produces only 40 percent of the normal levels of that enzyme.
In the last few years, the dream of predicting and preventing diseases through genomics, starting in childhood, is finally within reach.
That's enough to pass conventional newborn (heelstick) screening, but may not be enough for normal brain development, putting baby Cora at risk for seizures and cognitive impairment. But thanks to an experimental study in which Cora's DNA was sequenced after birth, this condition was discovered and she is being treated with a safe and inexpensive vitamin supplement.
Stories like these are beginning to emerge from the BabySeq Project, the first clinical trial in the world to systematically sequence healthy newborn infants. This trial was led by my research group with funding from the National Institutes of Health. While still controversial, it is pointing the way to a future in which adults, or even newborns, can receive comprehensive genetic analysis in order to determine their risk of future disease and enable opportunities to prevent them.
Some believe that medicine is still not ready for genomic population screening, but others feel it is long overdue. After all, the sequencing of the Human Genome Project was completed in 2003, and with this milestone, it became feasible to sequence and interpret the genome of any human being. The costs have come down dramatically since then; an entire human genome can now be sequenced for about $800, although the costs of bioinformatic and medical interpretation can add another $200 to $2000 more, depending upon the number of genes interrogated and the sophistication of the interpretive effort.
Two-year-old Cora Stetson, whose DNA sequencing after birth identified a potentially dangerous genetic mutation in time for her to receive preventive treatment.
(Photo courtesy of Robert Green)
The ability to sequence the human genome yielded extraordinary benefits in scientific discovery, disease diagnosis, and targeted cancer treatment. But the ability of genomes to detect health risks in advance, to actually predict the medical future of an individual, has been mired in controversy and slow to manifest. In particular, the oft-cited vision that healthy infants could be genetically tested at birth in order to predict and prevent the diseases they would encounter, has proven to be far tougher to implement than anyone anticipated.
But in the last few years, the dream of predicting and preventing diseases through genomics, starting in childhood, is finally within reach. Why did it take so long? And what remains to be done?
Part of the problem was the unrealistic expectations that had been building for years in advance of the genomic science itself. For example, the 1997 film Gattaca portrayed a near future in which the lifetime risk of disease was readily predicted the moment an infant is born. In the fanfare that accompanied the completion of the Human Genome Project, the notion of predicting and preventing future disease in an individual became a powerful meme that was used to inspire investment and public support for genomic research long before the tools were in place to make it happen.
Another part of the problem was the success of state-mandated newborn screening programs that began in the 1960's with biochemical tests of the "heel-stick" for babies with metabolic disorders. These programs have worked beautifully, costing only a few dollars per baby and saving thousands of infants from death and severe cognitive impairment. It seemed only logical that a new technology like genome sequencing would add power and promise to such programs. But instead of embracing the notion of newborn sequencing, newborn screening laboratories have thus far rejected the entire idea as too expensive, too ambiguous, and too threatening to the comfortable constituency that they had built within the public health framework.
"What can you find when you look as deeply as possible into the medical genomes of healthy individuals?"
Creating the Evidence Base for Preventive Genomics
Despite a number of obstacles, there are researchers who are exploring how to achieve the original vision of genomic testing as a tool for disease prediction and prevention. For example, in our NIH-funded MedSeq Project, we were the first to ask the question: "What can you find when you look as deeply as possible into the medical genomes of healthy individuals?"
Most people do not understand that genetic information comes in four separate categories: 1) dominant mutations putting the individual at risk for rare conditions like familial forms of heart disease or cancer, (2) recessive mutations putting the individual's children at risk for rare conditions like cystic fibrosis or PKU, (3) variants across the genome that can be tallied to construct polygenic risk scores for common conditions like heart disease or type 2 diabetes, and (4) variants that can influence drug metabolism or predict drug side effects such as the muscle pain that occasionally occurs with statin use.
The technological and analytical challenges of our study were formidable, because we decided to systematically interrogate over 5000 disease-associated genes and report results in all four categories of genetic information directly to the primary care physicians for each of our volunteers. We enrolled 200 adults and found that everyone who was sequenced had medically relevant polygenic and pharmacogenomic results, over 90 percent carried recessive mutations that could have been important to reproduction, and an extraordinary 14.5 percent carried dominant mutations for rare genetic conditions.
A few years later we launched the BabySeq Project. In this study, we restricted the number of genes to include only those with child/adolescent onset that could benefit medically from early warning, and even so, we found 9.4 percent carried dominant mutations for rare conditions.
At first, our interpretation around the high proportion of apparently healthy individuals with dominant mutations for rare genetic conditions was simple – that these conditions had lower "penetrance" than anticipated; in other words, only a small proportion of those who carried the dominant mutation would get the disease. If this interpretation were to hold, then genetic risk information might be far less useful than we had hoped.
Suddenly the information available in the genome of even an apparently healthy individual is looking more robust, and the prospect of preventive genomics is looking feasible.
But then we circled back with each adult or infant in order to examine and test them for any possible features of the rare disease in question. When we did this, we were surprised to see that in over a quarter of those carrying such mutations, there were already subtle signs of the disease in question that had not even been suspected! Now our interpretation was different. We now believe that genetic risk may be responsible for subclinical disease in a much higher proportion of people than has ever been suspected!
Meanwhile, colleagues of ours have been demonstrating that detailed analysis of polygenic risk scores can identify individuals at high risk for common conditions like heart disease. So adding up the medically relevant results in any given genome, we start to see that you can learn your risks for a rare monogenic condition, a common polygenic condition, a bad effect from a drug you might take in the future, or for having a child with a devastating recessive condition. Suddenly the information available in the genome of even an apparently healthy individual is looking more robust, and the prospect of preventive genomics is looking feasible.
Preventive Genomics Arrives in Clinical Medicine
There is still considerable evidence to gather before we can recommend genomic screening for the entire population. For example, it is important to make sure that families who learn about such risks do not suffer harms or waste resources from excessive medical attention. And many doctors don't yet have guidance on how to use such information with their patients. But our research is convincing many people that preventive genomics is coming and that it will save lives.
In fact, we recently launched a Preventive Genomics Clinic at Brigham and Women's Hospital where information-seeking adults can obtain predictive genomic testing with the highest quality interpretation and medical context, and be coached over time in light of their disease risks toward a healthier outcome. Insurance doesn't yet cover such testing, so patients must pay out of pocket for now, but they can choose from a menu of genetic screening tests, all of which are more comprehensive than consumer-facing products. Genetic counseling is available but optional. So far, this service is for adults only, but sequencing for children will surely follow soon.
As the costs of sequencing and other Omics technologies continue to decline, we will see both responsible and irresponsible marketing of genetic testing, and we will need to guard against unscientific claims. But at the same time, we must be far more imaginative and fast moving in mainstream medicine than we have been to date in order to claim the emerging benefits of preventive genomics where it is now clear that suffering can be averted, and lives can be saved. The future has arrived if we are bold enough to grasp it.
Funding and Disclosures:
Dr. Green's research is supported by the National Institutes of Health, the Department of Defense and through donations to The Franca Sozzani Fund for Preventive Genomics. Dr. Green receives compensation for advising the following companies: AIA, Applied Therapeutics, Helix, Ohana, OptraHealth, Prudential, Verily and Veritas; and is co-founder and advisor to Genome Medical, Inc, a technology and services company providing genetics expertise to patients, providers, employers and care systems.
Forty years ago, Joy Milne, a nurse from Perth, Scotland, noticed a musky odor coming from her husband, Les. At first, Milne thought the smell was a result of bad hygiene and badgered her husband to take longer showers. But when the smell persisted, Milne learned to live with it, not wanting to hurt her husband's feelings.
Twelve years after she first noticed the "woodsy" smell, Les was diagnosed at the age of 44 with Parkinson's Disease, a neurodegenerative condition characterized by lack of dopamine production and loss of movement. Parkinson's Disease currently affects more than 10 million people worldwide.
Milne spent the next several years believing the strange smell was exclusive to her husband. But to her surprise, at a local support group meeting in 2012, she caught the familiar scent once again, hanging over the group like a cloud. Stunned, Milne started to wonder if the smell was the result of Parkinson's Disease itself.
Milne's discovery led her to Dr. Tilo Kunath, a neurobiologist at the Centre for Regenerative Medicine at the University of Edinburgh. Together, Milne, Kunath, and a host of other scientists would use Milne's unusual sense of smell to develop a new diagnostic test, now in development and poised to revolutionize the treatment of Parkinson's Disease.
"Joy was in the audience during a talk I was giving on my work, which has to do with Parkinson's and stem cell biology," Kunath says. "During the patient engagement portion of the talk, she asked me if Parkinson's had a smell to it." Confused, Kunath said he had never heard of this – but for months after his talk he continued to turn the question over in his mind.
Kunath knew from his research that the skin's microbiome changes during different disease processes, releasing metabolites that can give off odors. In the medical literature, diseases like melanoma and Type 2 diabetes have been known to carry a specific scent – but no such connection had been made with Parkinson's. If people could smell Parkinson's, he thought, then it stood to reason that those metabolites could be isolated, identified, and used to potentially diagnose Parkinson's by their presence alone.
First, Kunath and his colleagues decided to test Milne's sense of smell. "I got in touch with Joy again and we designed a protocol to test her sense of smell without her having to be around patients," says Kunath, which could have affected the validity of the test. In his spare time, Kunath collected t-shirt samples from people diagnosed with Parkinson's and from others without the diagnosis and gave them to Milne to smell. In 100 percent of the samples, Milne was able to detect whether a person had Parkinson's based on smell alone. Amazingly, Milne was even able to detect the "Parkinson's scent" in a shirt from the control group – someone who did not have a Parkinson's diagnosis, but would go on to be diagnosed nine months later.
From the initial study, the team discovered that Parkinson's did have a smell, that Milne – inexplicably – could detect it, and that she could detect it long before diagnosis like she had with her husband, Les. But the experiments revealed other things that the team hadn't been expecting.
"One surprising thing we learned from that experiment was that the odor was always located in the back of the shirt – never in the armpit, where we expected the smell to be," Kunath says. "I had a chance meeting with a dermatologist and he said the smell was due to the patient's sebum, which are greasy secretions that are really dense on your upper back. We have sweat glands, instead of sebum, in our armpits." Patients with Parkinson's are also known to have increased sebum production.
With the knowledge that a patient's sebum was the source of the unusual smell, researchers could go on to investigate exactly what metabolites were in the sebum and in what amounts. Kunath, along with his associate, Dr. Perdita Barran, collected and analyzed sebum samples from 64 participants across the United Kingdom. Once the samples were collected, Barran and others analyzed it using a method called gas chromatography mass spectrometry, or GS-MC, which separated, weighed and helped identify the individual compounds present in each sebum sample.
Barran's team can now correctly identify Parkinson's in nine out of 10 patients – a much quicker and more accurate way to diagnose than what clinicians do now.
"The compounds we've identified in the sebum are not unique to people with Parkinson's, but they are differently expressed," says Barran, a professor of mass spectrometry at the University of Manchester. "So this test we're developing now is not a black-and-white, do-you-have-something kind of test, but rather how much of these compounds do you have compared to other people and other compounds." The team identified over a dozen compounds that were present in the sebum of Parkinson's patients in much larger amounts than the control group.
Using only the GC-MS and a sebum swab test, Barran's team can now correctly identify Parkinson's in nine out of 10 patients – a much quicker and more accurate way to diagnose than what clinicians do now.
"At the moment, a clinical diagnosis is based on the patient's physical symptoms," Barran says, and determining whether a patient has Parkinson's is often a long and drawn-out process of elimination. "Doctors might say that a group of symptoms looks like Parkinson's, but there are other reasons people might have those symptoms, and it might take another year before they're certain," Barran says. "Some of those symptoms are just signs of aging, and other symptoms like tremor are present in recovering alcoholics or people with other kinds of dementia." People under the age of 40 with Parkinson's symptoms, who present with stiff arms, are often misdiagnosed with carpal tunnel syndrome, she adds.
Additionally, by the time physical symptoms are present, Parkinson's patients have already lost a substantial amount of dopamine receptors – about sixty percent -- in the brain's basal ganglia. Getting a diagnosis before physical symptoms appear would mean earlier interventions that could prevent dopamine loss and preserve regular movement, Barran says.
"Early diagnosis is good if it means there's a chance of early intervention," says Barran. "It stops the process of dopamine loss, which means that motor symptoms potentially will not happen, or the onset of symptoms will be substantially delayed." Barran's team is in the processing of streamlining the sebum test so that definitive results will be ready in just two minutes.
"What we're doing right now will be a very inexpensive test, a rapid-screen test, and that will encourage people to self-sample and test at home," says Barran. In addition to diagnosing Parkinson's, she says, this test could also be potentially useful to determine if medications were at a therapeutic dose in people who have the disease, since the odor is strongest in people whose symptoms are least controlled by medication.
"When symptoms are under control, the odor is lower," Barran says. "Potentially this would allow patients and clinicians to see whether their symptoms are being managed properly with medication, or perhaps if they're being overmedicated." Hypothetically, patients could also use the test to determine if interventions like diet and exercise are effective at keeping Parkinson's controlled.
"We hope within the next two to five years we will have a test available."
Barran is now running another clinical trial – one that determines whether they can diagnose at an earlier stage and whether they can identify a difference in sebum samples between different forms of Parkinson's or diseases that have Parkinson's-like symptoms, such as Lewy Body Dementia.
"Within the next one to two years, we hope to be running a trial in the Manchester area for those people who do not have motor symptoms but are at risk for developing dementia due to symptoms like loss of smell and sleep difficulty," Barran had said in 2019. "If we can establish that, we can roll out a test that determines if you have Parkinson's or not with those first pre-motor symptoms, and then at what stage. We hope within the next two to five years we will have a test available."
In a 2022 study, published in the American Chemical Society, researchers used mass spectrometry to analyze sebum from skin swabs for the presence of the specific molecules. They found that some specific molecules are present only in people who have Parkinson’s. Now they hope that the same method can be used in regular diagnostic labs. The test, many years in the making, is inching its way to the clinic.
"We would likely first give this test to people who are at risk due to a genetic predisposition, or who are at risk based on prodomal symptoms, like people who suffer from a REM sleep disorder who have a 50 to 70 percent chance of developing Parkinson's within a ten year period," Barran says. "Those would be people who would benefit from early therapeutic intervention. For the normal population, it isn't beneficial at the moment to know until we have therapeutic interventions that can be useful."
Milne's husband, Les, passed away from complications of Parkinson's Disease in 2015. But thanks to him and the dedication of his wife, Joy, science may have found a way to someday prolong the lives of others with this devastating disease. Sometimes she can smell people who have Parkinson’s while in the supermarket or walking down the street but has been told by medical ethicists she cannot tell them, Milne said in an interview with the Guardian. But once the test becomes available in the clinics, it will do the job for her.
[Ed. Note: A older version of this hit article originally ran on September 3, 2019.]
Sarah Watts is a health and science writer based in Chicago. Follow her on Twitter at @swattswrites.
Earlier this year, Harvard scientists reported that they used an anti-aging therapy to reverse blindness in elderly mice. Several other studies in the past decade have suggested that the aging process can be modified, at least in lab organisms. Considering mice and humans share virtually the same genetic makeup, what does the rodent-based study mean for the humans?
In truth, we don’t know. Maybe nothing.
What we do know, however, is that a growing number of people are dedicating themselves to defying the aging process, to turning back the clock – the biological clock, that is. Take Bryan Johnson, a man who is less mouse than human guinea pig. A very wealthy guinea pig.
The 45-year-old venture capitalist spends over $2 million per year reversing his biological clock. To do this, he employs a team of 30 medical doctors and other scientists. His goal is to eventually reset his biological clock to age 18, and “have all of his major organs — including his brain, liver, kidneys, teeth, skin, hair, penis and rectum — functioning as they were in his late teens,” according to a story earlier this year in the New York Post.
But his daily routine paints a picture that is far from appealing: for example, rigorously adhering to a sleep schedule of 8 p.m. to 5 a.m. and consuming more than 100 pills and precisely 1,977 calories daily. Considering all of Johnson’s sacrifices, one discovers a paradox:
To live forever, he must die a little every day until he reaches his goal - if he ever reaches his goal.
Less extreme examples seem more helpful for people interested in happy, healthy aging. Enter Chris Mirabile, a New Yorker who says on his website, SlowMyAge.com, that he successfully reversed his biological age by 13.6 years, from the chronological age of 37.2 to a biological age of 23.6. To put this achievement in perspective, Johnson, to date, has reversed his biological clock by 2.5 years.
Mirabile's habits and overall quest to turn back the clock trace back to a harrowing experience at age 16 during a school trip to Manhattan, when he woke up on the floor with his shirt soaked in blood.
Mirabile, who is now 38, supports his claim with blood tests that purport to measure biological age by assessing changes to a person’s epigenome, or the chemical marks that affect how genes are expressed. Mirabile’s tests have been run and verified independently by the same scientific lab that analyzes Johnson’s. (In an email to Leaps.org, the lab, TruDiagnostic, confirmed Mirabile’s claims about his test results.)
There is considerable uncertainty among scientists about the extent to which these tests can accurately measure biological age in individuals. Even so, Mirabile’s results are intriguing. They could reflect his smart lifestyle for healthy aging.
His habits and overall quest to turn back the clock trace back to a harrowing experience at age 16 during a school trip to Manhattan, when Mirabile woke up on the floor with his shirt soaked in blood. He’d severed his tongue after a seizure. He later learned it was caused by a tumor the size of a golf ball. As a result, “I found myself contemplating my life, what I had yet to experience, and mortality – a theme that stuck with me during my year of recovery and beyond,” Mirabile told me.
For the next 15 years, he researched health and biology, integrating his learnings into his lifestyle. Then, in his early 30s, he came across an article in the journal Cell, "The Hallmarks of Aging," that outlined nine mechanisms of the body that define the aging process. Although the paper says there are no known interventions to delay some of these mechanisms, others, such as inflammation, struck Mirabile as actionable. Reading the paper was his “moment of epiphany” when it came to the areas where he could assert control to maximize his longevity.
He also wanted “to create a resource that my family, friends, and community could benefit from in the short term,” he said. He turned this knowledge base into a company called NOVOS dedicated to extending lifespan.
His longevity advice is more accessible than Johnson’s multi-million dollar approach, as Mirabile spends a fraction of that amount. Mirabile takes one epigenetic test per year and has a gym membership at $45 per month. Unlike Johnson, who takes 100 pills per day, Mirabile takes 10, costing another $45 monthly, including a B-complex, fish oil, Vitamins D3 and K2, and two different multivitamin supplements.
Mirabile’s methods may be easier to apply in other ways as well, since they include activities that many people enjoy anyway. He’s passionate about outdoor activities, travels frequently, and has loving relationships with friends and family, including his girlfriend and collie.
Here are a few of daily routines that could, he thinks, contribute to his impressively young bio age:
After waking at 7:45 am, he immediately drinks 16 ounces of water, with 1/4 teaspoon of sodium and potassium to replenish electrolytes. He takes his morning vitamins, brushes and flosses his teeth, puts on a facial moisturizing sunblock and goes for a brisk, two-mile walk in the sun. At 8:30 am on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays he lift weights, focusing on strength and power, especially in large muscle groups.
Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays are intense cardio days. He runs 5-7 miles or bicycles for 60 minutes first thing in the morning at a brisk pace, listening to podcasts. Sunday morning cardio is more leisurely.
After working out each day, he’s back home at 9:20 am, where he makes black coffee, showers, then applies serum and moisturizing sunblock to his face. He works for about three hours on his laptop, then has a protein shake and fruit.
Mirabile is a dedicated intermittent faster, with a six hour eating window in between 18 hours fasts. At 3 pm, he has lunch. The Mediterranean lineup often features salmon, sardines, olive oil, pink Himalayan salt plus potassium salt for balance, and lots of dried herbs and spices. He almost always finishes with 1/3 to 1/2 bar of dark chocolate.
If you are what you eat, Mirabile is made of mostly plants and lean meats. He follows a Mediterranean diet full of vegetables, fruits, fatty fish and other meats full of protein and unsaturated fats. “These may cost more than a meal at an American fast-food joint, but then again, not by much,” he said. Each day, he spends $25 on all his meals combined.
At 6 pm, he takes the dog out for a two-mile walk, taking calls for work or from family members along the way. At 7 pm, he dines with his girlfriend. Like lunch, this meal is heavy on widely available ingredients, including fish, fresh garlic, and fermented food like kimchi. Mirabile finishes this meal with sweets, like coconut milk yogurt with cinnamon and clove, some stevia, a mix of fresh berries and cacao nibs.
If Mirabile's epigenetic tests are accurate, his young biological age could be thanks to his healthy lifestyle, or it could come from a stroke of luck if he inherited genes that protect against aging.
At 8 pm, he wraps up work duties and watches shows with his girlfriend, applies serum and moisturizer yet again, and then meditates with the lights off. This wind-down, he said, improves his sleep quality. Wearing a sleep mask and earplugs, he’s asleep by about 10:30.
“I’ve achieved stellar health outcomes, even after having had the physiological stressors of a brain tumor, without spending a fortune,” Mirabile said. “In fact, even during times when I wasn’t making much money as a startup founder with few savings, I still managed to live a very healthy, pro-longevity lifestyle on a modest budget.”
Mirabile said living a cleaner, healthier existence is a reality that many readers can achieve. It’s certainly true that many people live in food deserts and have limited time for exercise or no access to gyms, but James R. Doty, a clinical professor of neurosurgery at Stanford, thinks many can take more action to stack the odds that they’ll “be happy and live longer.” Many of his recommendations echo aspects of Mirabile’s lifestyle.
Each night, Doty said, it’s vital to get anywhere between 6-8 hours of good quality sleep. Those who sleep less than 6 hours per night are at an increased risk of developing a whole host of medical problems, including high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes, and stroke.
In addition, it’s critical to follow Mirabile’s prescription of exercise for about one hour each day, and intensity levels matter. Doty noted that, in 2017, researchers at Brigham Young University found that people who ran at a fast pace for 30-40 minutes five days per week were, on average, biologically younger by nine years, compared to those who subscribed to more moderate exercise programs, as well as those who rarely exercised.
When it comes to nutrition, one should consider fasting for 16 hours per day, Doty said. This is known as the 16/8 method, where one’s daily calories are consumed within an eight hour window, fasting for the remaining 16 hours, just like Mirabile. Intermittent fasting is associated with cellular repair and less inflammation, though it’s not for everyone, Doty added. Consult with a medical professional before trying a fasting regimen.
Finally, Doty advised to “avoid anger, avoid stress.” Easier said than done, but not impossible. “Between stimulus and response, there is a pause and within that pause lies your freedom,” Doty said. Mirabile’s daily meditation ritual could be key to lower stress for healthy aging. Research has linked regular, long-term meditation to having a lower epigenetic age, compared to control groups.
Many other factors could apply. Having a life purpose, as Mirabile does with his company, has also been associated with healthy aging and lower epigenetic age. Of course, Mirabile is just one person, so it’s hard to know how his experience will apply to others. If his tests are accurate, his young biological age could be thanks to his healthy lifestyle, or it could come from a stroke of luck if he inherited genes that protect against aging. Clearly, though, any such genes did not protect him from cancer at an early age.
The third and perhaps most likely explanation: Mirabile’s very young biological age results from a combination of these factors. Some research shows that genetics account for only 25 percent of longevity. That means environmental factors could be driving the other 75 percent, such as where you live, frequency of exercise, quality of nutrition and social support.
The middle-aged – even Brian Johnson – probably can’t ever be 18 again. But more modest goals are reasonable for many. Control what you can for a longer, healthier life.