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.
Tinu Abayomi-Paul works as a writer and activist, plus one unwanted job: Trying to fill her opioid prescription. She says that some pharmacists laugh and tell her that no one needs the amount of pain medication that she is seeking. Another pharmacist near her home in Venus, Tex., refused to fill more than seven days of a 30-day prescription.
To get a new prescription—partially filled opioid prescriptions can’t be dispensed later—Abayomi-Paul needed to return to her doctor’s office. But without her medication, she was having too much pain to travel there, much less return to the pharmacy. She rationed out the pills over several weeks, an agonizing compromise that left her unable to work, interact with her children, sleep restfully, or leave the house. “Don’t I deserve to do more than survive?” she says.
Abayomi-Paul’s pain results from a degenerative spine disorder, chronic lymphocytic leukemia, and more than a dozen other diagnoses and disabilities. She is part of a growing group of people with chronic pain who have been negatively impacted by the fallout from efforts to prevent opioid overdose deaths.
Guidelines for dispensing these pills are complicated because many opioids, like codeine, oxycodone, and morphine, are prescribed legally for pain. Yet, deaths from opioids have increased rapidly since 1999 and become a national emergency. Many of them, such as heroin, are used illegally. The CDC identified three surges in opioid use: an increase in opioid prescriptions in the ‘90s, a surge of heroin around 2010, and an influx of fentanyl and other powerful synthetic opioids in 2013.
As overdose deaths grew, so did public calls to address them, prompting the CDC to change its prescription guidelines in 2016. The new guidelines suggested limiting medication for acute pain to a seven-day supply, capping daily doses of morphine, and other restrictions. Some statistics suggest that these policies have worked; from 2016 to 2019, prescriptions for opiates fell 44 percent. Physicians also started progressively lowering opioid doses for patients, a practice called tapering. A study tracking nearly 100,000 Medicare subscribers on opioids found that about 13 percent of patients were tapering in 2012, and that number increased to about 23 percent by 2017.
But some physicians may be too aggressive with this tapering strategy. About one in four people had doses reduced by more than 10 percent per week, a rate faster than the CDC recommends. The approach left people like Abayomi-Paul without the medication they needed. Every year, Abayomi-Paul says, her prescriptions are harder to fill. David Brushwood, a pharmacy professor who specializes in policy and outcomes at the University of Florida in Gainesville, says opioid dosing isn’t one-size-fits-all. “Patients need to be taken care of individually, not based on what some government agency says they need,” he says.
‘This is not survivable’
Health policy and disability rights attorney Erin Gilmer advocated for people with pain, using her own experience with chronic pain and a host of medical conditions as a guidepost. She launched an advocacy website, Healthcare as a Human Right, and shared her struggles on Twitter: “This pain is more than anything I've endured before and I've already been through too much. Yet because it's not simply identified no one believes it's as bad as it is. This is not survivable.”
When her pain dramatically worsened midway through 2021, Gilmer’s posts grew ominous: “I keep thinking it can't possibly get worse but somehow every day is worse than the last.”
The CDC revised its guidelines in 2022 after criticisms that people with chronic pain were being undertreated, enduring dangerous withdrawal symptoms, and suffering psychological distress. (Long-term opioid use can cause physical dependency, an adaptive reaction that is different than the compulsive misuse associated with a substance use disorder.) It was too late for Gilmer. On July 7, 2021, the 38-year-old died by suicide.
Last August, an Ohio district court rulingset forth a new requirement for Walgreens, Walmart, and CVS pharmacists in two counties. These pharmacists must now document opioid prescriptions that are turned down, even for customers who have no previous purchases at that pharmacy, and they’re required to share this information with other locations in the same chain. None of the three pharmacies responded to an interview request from Leaps.org.
In a practice called red flagging, pharmacists may label a prescription suspicious for a variety of reasons, such as if a pharmacist observes an unusually high dose, a long distance from the patient’s home to the pharmacy, or cash payment. Pharmacists may question patients or prescribers to resolve red flags but, regardless of the explanation, they’re free to refuse to fill a prescription.
As the risk of litigation has grown, so has finger-pointing, says Seth Whitelaw, a compliance consultant at Whitelaw Compliance Group in West Chester, PA, who advises drug, medical device, and biotech companies. Drugmakers accused in National Prescription Opioid Litigation (NPOL), a complex set of thousands of cases on opioid epidemic deaths, which includes the Ohio district case, have argued that they shouldn’t be responsible for the large supply of opiates and overdose deaths. Yet, prosecutors alleged that these pharmaceutical companies hid addiction and overdose risks when labeling opioids, while distributors and pharmacists failed to identify suspicious orders or scripts.
Patients and pharmacists fear red flags
The requirements that pharmacists document prescriptions they refuse to fill so far only apply to two counties in Ohio. But Brushwood fears they will spread because of this precedent, and because there’s no way for pharmacists to predict what new legislation is on the way. “There is no definition of a red flag, there are no lists of red flags. There is no instruction on what to do when a red flag is detected. There’s no guidance on how to document red flags. It is a standardless responsibility,” Brushwood says. This adds trepidation for pharmacists—and more hoops to jump through for patients.
“I went into the doctor one day here and she said, ‘I'm going to stop prescribing opioids to all my patients effective immediately,” Nicolson says.
“We now have about a dozen studies that show that actually ripping somebody off their medication increases their risk of overdose and suicide by three to five times, destabilizes their health and mental health, often requires some hospitalization or emergency care, and can cause heart attacks,” says Kate Nicolson, founder of the National Pain Advocacy Centerbased in Boulder, Colorado. “It can kill people.” Nicolson was in pain for decades due to a surgical injury to the nerves leading to her spinal cord before surgeries fixed the problem.
Another issue is that primary care offices may view opioid use as a reason to turn down new patients. In a 2021 study, secret shoppers called primary care clinics in nine states, identifying themselves as long-term opioid users. When callers said their opioids were discontinued because their former physician retired, as opposed to an unspecified reason, they were more likely to be offered an appointment. Even so, more than 40 percent were refused an appointment. The study authors say their findings suggest that some physicians may try to avoid treating people who use opioids.
Abayomi-Paul says red flagging has changed how she fills prescriptions. “Once I go to one place, I try to [continue] going to that same place because of the amount of records that I have and making sure my medications don’t conflict,” Abayomi-Paul says.
Nicolson moved to Colorado from Washington D.C. in 2015, before the CDC issued its 2016 guidelines. When the guidelines came out, she found the change to be shockingly abrupt. “I went into the doctor one day here and she said, ‘I'm going to stop prescribing opioids to all my patients effective immediately.’” Since then, she’s spoken with dozens of patients who have been red-flagged or simply haven’t been able to access pain medication.
Despite her expertise, Nicolson isn’t positive she could successfully fill an opioid prescription today even if she needed one. At this point, she’s not sure exactly what various pharmacies would view as a red flag. And she’s not confident that these red flags even work. “You can have very legitimate reasons for being 50 miles away or having to go to multiple pharmacies, given that there are drug shortages now, as well as someone refusing to fill [a prescription.] It doesn't mean that you’re necessarily ‘drug seeking.’”
While there’s no easy solution. Whitelaw says clarifying the role of pharmacists and physicians in patient access to opioids could help people get the medication they need. He is seeking policy changes that focus on the needs of people in pain more than the number of prescriptions filled. He also advocates standardizing the definition of red flags and procedures for resolving them. Still, there will never be a single policy that can be applied to all people, explains Brushwood, the University of Florida professor. “You have to make a decision about each individual prescription.”
There’s a growing need to slow down the aging process. The world’s population is getting older and, according to one estimate, 80 million Americans will be 65 or older by 2040. As we age, the risk of many chronic diseases goes up, from cancer to heart disease to Alzheimer’s.
BioAge Labs, a company based in California, is using genetic data to help people stay healthy for longer. CEO Kristen Fortney was inspired by the genetics of people who live long lives and resist many age-related diseases. In 2015, she started BioAge to study them and develop drug therapies based on the company’s learnings.
The team works with special biobanks that have been collecting blood samples and health data from individuals for up to 45 years. Using artificial intelligence, BioAge is able to find the distinctive molecular features that distinguish those who have healthy longevity from those who don’t.
In December 2022, BioAge published findings on a drug that worked to prevent muscular atrophy, or the loss of muscle strength and mass, in older people. Much of the research on aging has been in worms and mice, but BioAge is focused on human data, Fortney says. “This boosts our chances of developing drugs that will be safe and effective in human patients.”
How it works
With assistance from AI, BioAge measures more than 100,000 molecules in each blood sample, looking at proteins, RNA and metabolites, or small molecules that are produced through chemical processes. The company uses many techniques to identify these molecules, some of which convert the molecules into charged atoms and then separating them according to their weight and charge. The resulting data is very complex, with many thousands of data points from patients being followed over the decades.
BioAge validates its targets by examining whether a pathway going awry is actually linked to the development of diseases, based on the company’s analysis of biobank health records and blood samples. The team uses AI and machine learning to identify these pathways, and the key proteins in the unhealthy pathways become their main drug targets. “The approach taken by BioAge is an excellent example of how we can harness the power of big data and advances in AI technology to identify new drugs and therapeutic targets,” says Lorna Harries, a professor of molecular genetics at the University of Exeter Medical School.
Martin Borch Jensen is the founder of Gordian Biotechnology, a company focused on using gene therapy to treat aging. He says BioAge’s use of AI allows them to speed up the process of finding promising drug candidates. However, it remains a challenge to separate pathologies from aspects of the natural aging process that aren’t necessarily bad. “Some of the changes are likely protective responses to things going wrong,” Jensen says. “Their data doesn’t…distinguish that so they’ll need to validate and be clever.”
Developing a drug for muscle loss
BioAge decided to focus on muscular atrophy because it affects many elderly people, making it difficult to perform everyday activities and increasing the risk of falls. Using the biobank samples, the team modeled different pathways that looked like they could improve muscle health. They found that people who had faster walking speeds, better grip strength and lived longer had higher levels of a protein called apelin.
Apelin is a peptide, or a small protein, that circulates in the blood. It is involved in the process by which exercise increases and preserves muscle mass. BioAge wondered if they could prevent muscular atrophy by increasing the amount of signaling in the apelin pathway. Instead of the long process of designing a drug, they decided to repurpose an existing drug made by another biotech company. This company, called Amgen, had explored the drug as a way to treat heart failure. It didn’t end up working for that purpose, but BioAge took note that the drug did seem to activate the apelin pathway.
BioAge tested its new, repurposed drug, BGE-105, and, in a phase 1 clinical trial, it protected subjects from getting muscular atrophy compared to a placebo group that didn’t receive the drug. Healthy volunteers over age 65 received infusions of the drug during 10 days spent in bed, as if they were on bed rest while recovering from an illness or injury; the elderly are especially vulnerable to muscle loss in this situation. The 11 people taking BGE-105 showed a 100 percent improvement in thigh circumference compared to 10 people taking the placebo. Ultrasound observations also revealed that the group taking the durg had enhanced muscle quality and a 73 percent increase in muscle thickness. One volunteer taking BGE-105 did have muscle loss compared to the the placebo group.
Heather Whitson, the director of the Duke University Centre for the study of aging and human development, says that, overall, the results are encouraging. “The clinical findings so far support the premise that AI can help us sort through enormous amounts of data and identify the most promising points for beneficial interventions.”
More studies are needed to find out which patients benefit the most and whether there are side effects. “I think further studies will answer more questions,” Whitson says, noting that BGE-105 was designed to enhance only one aspect of physiology associated with exercise, muscle strength. But exercise itself has many other benefits on mood, sleep, bones and glucose metabolism. “We don’t know whether BGE-105 will impact these other outcomes,” she says.
BioAge is planning phase 2 trials for muscular atrophy in patients with obesity and those who have been hospitalized in an intensive care unit. Using the data from biobanks, they’ve also developed another drug, BGE-100, to treat chronic inflammation in the brain, a condition that can worsen with age and contributes to neurodegenerative diseases. The team is currently testing the drug in animals to assess its effects and find the right dose.
BioAge envisions that its drugs will have broader implications for health than treating any one specific disease. “Ultimately, we hope to pioneer a paradigm shift in healthcare, from treatment to prevention, by targeting the root causes of aging itself,” Fortney says. “We foresee a future where healthy longevity is within reach for all.”