In 2006, the cover of Scientific American was "Know Your DNA" and the inside story was "Genomes for All." Today, we are closer to that goal than ever. Making it affordable for everyone to understand and change their DNA will fundamentally alter how we manage diseases, how we conduct clinical research, and even how we select a mate.
A frequent line of questions on the topic of making genome reading affordable is: Do we need to read the whole genome in order to accurately predict disease risk?
Since 2006, we have driven the cost of reading a human genome down from $3 billion to $600. To aid interpretation and research to produce new diagnostics and therapeutics, my research team at Harvard initiated the Personal Genome Project and later, Openhumans.org. This has demonstrated international informed consent for human genomes, and diverse environmental and trait data can be distributed freely. This is done with no strings attached in a manner analogous to Wikipedia. Cell lines from that project are similarly freely available for experiments on synthetic biology, gene therapy and human developmental biology. DNA from those cells have been chosen by the US National Institute of Standards and Technology and the Food and Drug Administration to be the key federal standards for the human genome.
A frequent line of questions on the topic of making genome reading affordable is: Do we need to read the whole genome in order to accurately predict disease risk? Can we just do most commonly varying parts of the genome, which constitute only a tiny fraction of a percent? Or just the most important parts encoding the proteins or 'exome,' which constitute about one percent of the genome? The commonly varying parts of the genome are poor predictors of serious genetic diseases and the exomes don't detect DNA rearrangements which often wipe out gene function when they occur in non-coding regions within genes. Since the cost of the exome is not one percent of the whole genome cost, but nearly identical ($600), missing an impactful category of mutants is really not worth it. So the answer is yes, we should read the whole genome to glean comprehensively meaningful information.
In parallel to the reading revolution, we have dropped the price of DNA synthesis by a similar million-fold and made genome editing tools close to free.
In parallel to the reading revolution, we have dropped the price of DNA synthesis by a similar million-fold and made genome editing tools like CRISPR, TALE and MAGE close to free by distributing them through the non-profit Addgene.org. Gene therapies are already curing blindness in children and cancer in adults, and hopefully soon infectious diseases and hemoglobin diseases like sickle cell anemia. Nevertheless, gene therapies are (so far) the most expensive class of drugs in history (about $1 million dollars per dose).
This is in large part because the costs of proving safety and efficacy in a randomized clinical trial are high and that cost is spread out only over the people that benefit (aka the denominator). Striking growth is evident in such expensive hyper-personalized therapies ever since the "Orphan Drug Act of 1983." For the most common disease, aging (which kills 90 percent of people in wealthy regions of the world), the denominator is maximal and the cost of the drugs should be low as genetic interventions to combat aging become available in the next ten years. But what can we do about rarer diseases with cheap access to genome reading and editing tools? Try to prevent them in the first place.
A huge fraction of these births is preventable if unaffected carriers of such diseases do not mate.
While the cost of reading has plummeted, the value of knowing your genome is higher than ever. About 5 percent of births result in extreme medical trauma over a person's lifetime due to rare genetic diseases. Even without gene therapy, these cost the family and society more than a million dollars in drugs, diagnostics and instruments, extra general care, loss of income for the affected individual and other family members, plus pain and anxiety of the "medical odyssey" often via dozens of mystified physicians. A huge fraction of these births is preventable if unaffected carriers of such diseases do not mate.
The non-profit genetic screening organization, Dor Yeshorim (established in 1983), has shown that this is feasible by testing for Tay–Sachs disease, Familial dysautonomia, Cystic fibrosis, Canavan disease, Glycogen storage disease (type 1), Fanconi anemia (type C), Bloom syndrome, Niemann–Pick disease, Mucolipidosis type IV. This is often done at the pre-marital, matchmaking phase, which can reduce the frequency of natural or induced abortions. Such matchmaking can be done in such a way that no one knows the carrier status of any individual in the system. In addition to those nine tests, many additional diseases can be picked up by whole genome sequencing. No person can know in advance that they are exempt from these risks.
Furthermore, concerns about rare "false positives" is far less at the stage of matchmaking than at the stage of prenatal testing, since the latter could involve termination of a healthy fetus, while the former just means that you restrict your dating to 90 percent of the population. In order to scale this up from 13 million Ashkenazim and Sephardim to billions in diverse cultures, we will likely see new computer security, encryption, blockchain and matchmaking tools.
Once the diseases are eradicated from our population, the interventions can be said to impact not only the current population, but all subsequent generations.
As reading and writing become exponentially more affordable and reliable, we can tackle equitable distribution, but there remain issues of education and security. Society, broadly (insurers, health care providers, governments) should be able to see a roughly 12-fold return on their investment of $1800 per person ($600 each for raw data, interpretation and incentivizing the participant) by saving $1 million per diseased child per 20 families. Everyone will have free access to their genome information and software to guide their choices in precision medicines, mates and participation in biomedical research studies.
In terms of writing and editing, if delivery efficiency and accuracy keep improving, then pill or aerosol formulations of gene therapies -- even non-prescription, veterinary or home-made versions -- are not inconceivable. Preventions tends to be more affordable and more humane than cures. If gene therapies provide prevention of diseases of aging, cancer and cognitive decline, they might be considered "enhancement," but not necessarily more remarkable than past preventative strategies, like vaccines against HPV-cancer, smallpox and polio. Whether we're overcoming an internal genetic flaw or an external infectious disease, the purpose is the same: to minimize human suffering. Once the diseases are eradicated from our population, the interventions can be said to impact not only the current population, but all subsequent generations. This reminds us that we need to listen carefully, educate each other and proactively imagine and deflect likely, and even unlikely, unintended consequences, including stigmatization of the last few unprotected individuals.
In December 1958, on a vacation with his wife in Kenya, a 28-year-old British tea broker named Robin Cavendish became suddenly ill. Neither he nor his wife Diana knew it at the time, but Robin's illness would change the course of medical history forever.
Robin was rushed to a nearby hospital in Kenya where the medical staff delivered the crushing news: Robin had contracted polio, and the paralysis creeping up his body was almost certainly permanent. The doctors placed Robin on a ventilator through a tracheotomy in his neck, as the paralysis from his polio infection had rendered him unable to breathe on his own – and going off the average life expectancy at the time, they gave him only three months to live. Robin and Diana (who was pregnant at the time with their first child, Jonathan) flew back to England so he could be admitted to a hospital. They mentally prepared to wait out Robin's final days.
But Robin did something unexpected when he returned to the UK – just one of many things that would astonish doctors over the next several years: He survived. Diana gave birth to Jonathan in February 1959 and continued to visit Robin regularly in the hospital with the baby. Despite doctors warning that he would soon succumb to his illness, Robin kept living.
After a year in the hospital, Diana suggested something radical: She wanted Robin to leave the hospital and live at home in South Oxfordshire for as long as he possibly could, with her as his nurse. At the time, this suggestion was unheard of. People like Robin who depended on machinery to keep them breathing had only ever lived inside hospital walls, as the prevailing belief was that the machinery needed to keep them alive was too complicated for laypeople to operate. But Diana and Robin were up for the challenges – and the risks. Because his ventilator ran on electricity, if the house were to unexpectedly lose power, Diana would either need to restore power quickly or hand-pump air into his lungs to keep him alive.
Robin's wheelchair was not only the first of its kind; it became the model for the respiratory wheelchairs that people still use today.
In an interview as an adult, Jonathan Cavendish reflected on his parents' decision to live outside the hospital on a ventilator: "My father's mantra was quality of life," he explained. "He could have stayed in the hospital, but he didn't think that was as good of a life as he could manage. He would rather be two minutes away from death and living a full life."
After a few years of living at home, however, Robin became tired of being confined to his bed. He longed to sit outside, to visit friends, to travel – but had no way of doing so without his ventilator. So together with his friend Teddy Hall, a professor and engineer at Oxford University, the two collaborated in 1962 to create an entirely new invention: a battery-operated wheelchair prototype with a ventilator built in. With this, Robin could now venture outside the house – and soon the Cavendish family became famous for taking vacations. It was something that, by all accounts, had never been done before by someone who was ventilator-dependent. Robin and Hall also designed a van so that the wheelchair could be plugged in and powered during travel. Jonathan Cavendish later recalled a particular family vacation that nearly ended in disaster when the van broke down outside of Barcelona, Spain:
"My poor old uncle [plugged] my father's chair into the wrong socket," Cavendish later recalled, causing the electricity to short. "There was fire and smoke, and both the van and the chair ground to a halt." Johnathan, who was eight or nine at the time, his mother, and his uncle took turns hand-pumping Robin's ventilator by the roadside for the next thirty-six hours, waiting for Professor Hall to arrive in town and repair the van. Rather than being panicked, the Cavendishes managed to turn the vigil into a party. Townspeople came to greet them, bringing food and music, and a local priest even stopped by to give his blessing.
Robin had become a pioneer, showing the world that a person with severe disabilities could still have mobility, access, and a fuller quality of life than anyone had imagined. His mission, along with Hall's, then became gifting this independence to others like himself. Robin and Hall raised money – first from the Ernest Kleinwort Charitable Trust, and then from the British Department of Health – to fund more ventilator chairs, which were then manufactured by Hall's company, Littlemore Scientific Engineering, and given to fellow patients who wanted to live full lives at home. Robin and Hall used themselves as guinea pigs, testing out different models of the chairs and collaborating with scientists to create other devices for those with disabilities. One invention, called the Possum, allowed paraplegics to control things like the telephone and television set with just a nod of the head. Robin's wheelchair was not only the first of its kind; it became the model for the respiratory wheelchairs that people still use today.
Robin went on to enjoy a long and happy life with his family at their house in South Oxfordshire, surrounded by friends who would later attest to his "down-to-earth" personality, his sense of humor, and his "irresistible" charm. When he died peacefully at his home in 1994 at age 64, he was considered the world's oldest-living person who used a ventilator outside the hospital – breaking yet another barrier for what medical science thought was possible.
Sarah Watts is a health and science writer based in Chicago. Follow her on Twitter at @swattswrites.
In June 2012, Kirstie Ennis was six months into her second deployment to Afghanistan and recently promoted to sergeant. The helicopter gunner and seven others were three hours into a routine mission of combat resupplies and troop transport when their CH-53D helicopter went down hard.
Miraculously, all eight people onboard survived, but Ennis' injuries were many and severe. She had a torn rotator cuff, torn labrum, crushed cervical discs, facial fractures, deep lacerations and traumatic brain injury. Despite a severely fractured ankle, doctors managed to save her foot, for a while at least.
In November 2015, after three years of constant pain and too many surgeries to count, Ennis relented. She elected to undergo a lower leg amputation but only after she completed the 1,000-mile, 72-day Walking with the Wounded journey across the UK.
On Veteran's Day of that year, on the other side of the country, orthopedic surgeon Cato Laurencin announced a moonshot challenge he was setting out to achieve on behalf of wounded warriors like Ennis: the Hartford Engineering A Limb (HEAL) Project.
Laurencin, who is a University of Connecticut professor of chemical, materials and biomedical engineering, teamed up with experts in tissue bioengineering and regenerative medicine from Harvard, Columbia, UC Irvine and SASTRA University in India. Laurencin and his colleagues at the Connecticut Convergence Institute for Translation in Regenerative Engineering made a bold commitment to regenerate an entire limb within 15 years – by the year 2030.
Dr. Cato Laurencin pictured in his office at UConn.
Photo Credit: UConn
Regenerative Engineering -- A Whole New Field
Limb regeneration in humans has been a medical and scientific fascination for decades, with little to show for the effort. However, Laurencin believes that if we are to reach the next level of 21st century medical advances, this puzzle must be solved.
An estimated 185,000 people undergo upper or lower limb amputation every year. Despite the significant advances in electromechanical prosthetics, these individuals still lack the ability to perform complex functions such as sensation for tactile input, normal gait and movement feedback. As far as Laurencin is concerned, the only clinical answer that makes sense is to regenerate a whole functional limb.
Laurencin feels other regeneration efforts were hampered by their siloed research methods with chemists, surgeons, engineers all working separately. Success, he argues, requires a paradigm shift to a trans-disciplinary approach that brings together cutting-edge technologies from disparate fields such as biology, material sciences, physical, chemical and engineering sciences.
As the only surgeon ever inducted into the academies of Science, Medicine and Innovation, Laurencin is uniquely suited for the challenge. He is regarded as the founder of Regenerative Engineering, defined as the convergence of advanced materials sciences, stem cell sciences, physics, developmental biology and clinical translation for the regeneration of complex tissues and organ systems.
But none of this is achievable without early clinician participation across scientific fields to develop new technologies and a deeper understanding of how to harness the body's innate regenerative capabilities. "When I perform a surgical procedure or something is torn or needs to be repaired, I count on the body being involved in regenerating tissue," he says. "So, understanding how the body works to regenerate itself and harnessing that ability is an important factor for the regeneration process."
The Birth of the Vision
Laurencin's passion for regeneration began when he was a sports medicine fellow at Cornell University Medical Center in the early 1990s. There he saw a significant number of injuries to the anterior cruciate ligament (ACL), the major ligament that stabilizes the knee. He believed he could develop a better way to address those injuries using biomaterials to regenerate the ligament. He sketched out a preliminary drawing on a napkin one night over dinner. He has spent the next 30 years regenerating tissues, including the patented L-C ligament.
As chair of Orthopaedic Surgery at the University of Virginia during the peak of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Laurencin treated military personnel who survived because of improved helmets, body armor and battlefield medicine but were left with more devastating injuries, including traumatic brain injuries and limb loss.
"I was so honored to care for them and I so admired their steadfast courage that I became determined to do something big for them," says Laurencin.
When he tells people about his plans to regrow a limb, he gets a lot of eye rolls, which he finds amusing but not discouraging. Growing bone cells was relatively new when he was first focused on regenerating bone in 1987 at MIT; in 2007 he was well on his way to regenerating ligaments at UVA when many still doubted that ligaments could even be reconstructed. He and his team have already regenerated torn rotator cuff tendons and ACL ligaments using a nano-textured fabric seeded with stem cells.
Even as a finalist for the $4 million NIH Pioneer Award for high-risk/high-reward research, he faced a skeptical scientific audience in 2014. "They said, 'Well what do you plan to do?' I said 'I plan to regenerate a whole limb in people.' There was a lot of incredulousness. They stared at me and asked a lot of questions. About three days later, I received probably the best score I've ever gotten on an NIH grant."
In the Thick of the Science
Humans are born with regenerative abilities--two-year-olds have regrown fingertips--but lose that ability with age. Salamanders are the only vertebrates that can regenerate lost body parts as adults; axolotl, the rare Mexican salamander, can grow extra limbs.
The axolotl is important as a model organism because it is a four-footed vertebrate with a similar body plan to humans. Mapping the axolotl genome in 2018 enhanced scientists' genetic understanding of their evolution, development, and regeneration. Being easy to breed in captivity allowed the HEAL team to closely study these amphibians and discover a new cell type they believe may shed light on how to mimic the process in humans.
"Whenever limb regeneration takes place in the salamander, there is a huge amount of something called heparan sulfate around that area," explains Laurencin. "We thought, 'What if this heparan sulfate is the key ingredient to allowing regeneration to take place?' We found these groups of cells that were interspersed in tissues during the time of regeneration that seemed to have connections to each other that expressed this heparan sulfate."
Called GRID (Groups that are Regenerative, Interspersed and Dendritic), these cells were also recently discovered in mice. While GRID cells don't regenerate as well in mice as in salamanders, finding them in mammals was significant.
"If they're found in mice. we might be able to find these in humans in some form," Laurencin says. "We think maybe it will help us figure out regeneration or we can create cells that mimic what grid cells do and create an artificial grid cell."
What Comes Next?
Laurencin and his team have individually engineered and made every single tissue in the lower limb, including bone, cartilage, ligament, skin, nerve, blood vessels. Regenerating joints and joint tissue is the next big mile marker, which Laurencin sees as essential to regenerating a limb that functions and performs in the way he envisions.
"Using stem cells and amnion tissue, we can regenerate joints that are damaged, and have severe arthritis," he says. "We're making progress on all fronts, and making discoveries we believe are going to be helping people along the way."
That focus and advancement is vital to Ennis. After laboring over the decision to have her leg amputated below the knee, she contracted MRSA two weeks post-surgery. In less than a month, she went from a below-the-knee-amputee to a through-the-knee amputee to an above-the-knee amputee.
"A below-the-knee amputation is night-and-day from above-the-knee," she said. "You have to relearn everything. You're basically a toddler."
Kirstie Ennis pictured in July 2020.
Photo Credit: Ennis' Instagram
The clock is ticking on the timeline Laurencin set for himself. Nine years might seem like forever if you're doing time but it might appear fleeting when you're trying to create something that's never been done before. But Laurencin isn't worried. He's convinced time is on his side.
"Every week, I receive an email or a call from someone, maybe a mother whose child has lost a finger or I'm in communication with a disabled American veteran who wants to know how the progress is going. That energizes me to continue to work hard to try to create these sorts of solutions because we're talking about people and their lives."
He devotes about 60 hours a week to the project and the roughly 100 students, faculty and staff who make up the HEAL team at the Convergence Institute seem acutely aware of what's at stake and appear equally dedicated.
"We're in the thick of the science in terms of making this happen," says Laurencin. "We've moved from making the impossible possible to making the possible a reality. That's what science is all about."