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.
The Friday Five covers five stories in research that you may have missed this week. There are plenty of controversies and troubling ethical issues in science – and we get into many of them in our online magazine – but this news roundup focuses on scientific creativity and progress to give you a therapeutic dose of inspiration headed into the weekend.
Here are the promising studies covered in this week's Friday Five:
- Research on a "smart" bandage for wounds
- A breakthrough in fighting inflammation
- The pros and cons of a new drug for Alzheimer's
- Benefits of the Mediterranean diet - with a twist
- How to recycle a plastic that was un-recyclable
Sexually transmitted infections (STIs) are surging across the U.S. to 2.5 million cases in 2021 according to preliminary data from the CDC. A new prevention and treatment strategy now in clinical trials may provide a way to get a handle on them.
It's easy to overlook the soaring rates of gonorrhea, chlamydia, and syphilis because most of those infections have few or no symptoms and can be identified only through testing. But left untreated, they can lead to serious damage to nerves and tissue, resulting in infertility, blindness, and dementia. Infants developing in utero are particularly vulnerable.
Covid-19 played havoc with regular medical treatment and preventive care for many health problems, including STIs. After formal lockdowns ended, many people gradually became more socially engaged, with increases in sexual activity, and may have prioritized these activities over getting back in touch with their doctors.
A second blow to controlling STIs is that family planning clinics are closing left and right because of the Dobbs decision and legislation in many states that curtailed access to an abortion. Discussion has focused on abortion, but those same clinics also play a vital role in the diagnosis and treatment of STIs.
Routine public health is the neglected stepchild of medicine. It is called upon in times of crisis but as that crisis resolves, funding dries up. Labs have atrophied and personnel have been redirected to Covid, “so access to routine screening for STIs has been decimated,” says Jennifer Mahn, director of sexual and clinical health with the National Coalition of STD Directors.
A preview of what we likely are facing comes from Iowa. In 2017, the state legislature restricted funding to family health clinics in four counties, which closed their doors. A year later the statewide rate of gonorrhea skyrocketed from 83 to 153.7 cases per 100,000 people. “Iowa counties with clinic closures had a significantly larger increase,” according to a study published in JAMA. That scenario likely is playing out in countless other regions where access to sexual health care is shrinking; it will be many months before we have the data to know for sure.
A decades-old antibiotic finds a new purpose
Using drugs to protect against HIV, either as post exposure prophylaxis (PEP) or pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP), has proven to be quite successful. Researchers wondered if the same approach might be applied to other STIs. They focused on doxycycline, or doxy for short. One of the most commonly prescribed antibiotics in the U.S., it’s a member of the tetracycline family that has been on the market since 1967. It is so safe that it’s used to treat acne.
Two small studies using doxy suggested that it could work to prevent STIs. A handful of clinical trials by different researchers and funding sources set out to generate the additional evidence needed to prove their hypothesis and change the standard of care.
Senior researcher Victor Omollo, with the Kenya Medical Research Institute, noted, “These are prevention interventions that women can control on their own without having to seek or get consent from another person,” as is the case with condom use.
The first with results is the DoxyPEP study, conducted at two sexual health clinics in San Francisco and Seattle. It drew from a mix of transgender women and men who have sex with men, who had at least one diagnosed STI over the last year. The researchers divided the participants into two groups: one with people who were already HIV-positive and engaged in care, while the other group consisted of people who were on PrEP to prevent infection with HIV. For the active part of the study, a subset of the participants received doxy, and the rest of the participants did not.
The researchers intentionally chose to do the study in a population at the highest risk of having STIs, who were very health oriented, and “who were getting screened every three months or so as part of their PrEP program or their HIV care program,” says Connie Celum, a senior researcher at the University of Washington on the study.
Each member of the active group was given a supply of doxy and asked to take two pills within 72 hours of having sex where a condom was not used. The study was supposed to run for two years but, in May, it stopped halfway through, when a safety monitoring board looked at the data and recommended that it would be unethical to continue depriving the control group of the drug’s benefits.
Celum presented these preliminary results from the DoxyPEP study in July at the International AIDS Conference in Montreal. “We saw about a 56 percent reduction in gonorrhea, about 80 percent reduction in chlamydia and syphilis, so very significant reductions, and this is on a per quarter basis,” she told a later webinar.
In Kenya, another study is following a group of cisgender women who are taking the same two-pill regimen to prevent HIV, and the data from this research should become available in 2023. Senior researcher Victor Omollo, with the Kenya Medical Research Institute, noted that “these are prevention interventions that women can control on their own without having to seek or get consent from another person,” as is the case with condom use, another effective prevention tool.
Antibiotic resistance is a potentially big concern. About 25 percent of gonorrhea strains circulating in the U.S. are resistant to the tetracycline class of drugs, including doxy; rates are higher elsewhere. But resistance often is a matter of degree and can be overcome with a larger or longer dose of the drug, or perhaps with a switch to another drug or a two-drug combination.
Research has shown that an established bacterial infection is more difficult to treat because it is part of a biofilm, which can leave only a small portion or perhaps none of the cell surface exposed to a drug. But a new infection, even one where the bacteria is resistant to a drug, might still be vulnerable to that drug if it's used before the bacterial biofilm can be established. Preliminary data suggests that may be the case with doxyPEP and drug resistant gonorrhea; some but not all new drug resistant infections might be thwarted if they’re treated early enough.
“There are some tradeoffs” to these interventions, Celum says, and people may disagree on the cost of increased resistance balanced against the benefits of treating the STIs and reducing their spread within the community.
Resistance does not seem to be an issue yet for chlamydia and syphilis even though doxy has been a recommended treatment for decades, but a remaining question is whether broader use of doxy will directly worsen antibiotic resistance in gonorrhea, or promote it in other STIs. And how will it affect the gut microbiome?
In addition, Celum notes that we need to understand whether doxy will generate mutations in other bacteria that might contribute to drug resistance for gonorrhea, chlamydia or syphilis. The studies underway aim to provide data to answer these questions.
“There are some tradeoffs” to these interventions, Celum says, and people may disagree on the cost of increased resistance balanced against the benefits of treating the STIs and reducing their spread within the community. That might affect doctors' willingness to prescribe the drug.
Turning research into action
The CDC makes policy recommendations for prevention services such as taking doxy, requiring some and leaving others optional. Celum says the CDC will be reviewing information from her trial at a meeting in December, but probably will wait until that study is published before making recommendations, likely in 2023. The San Francisco Department of Public Health issued its own guidance on October 20th and anecdotally, some doctors around the country are beginning to issue prescriptions for doxy to select patients.
About half of new STIs occur in young people ages 15 to 24, a group that is least likely to regularly see a doctor. And sexual health remains a great taboo for many people who don't want such information on their health record for prying parents, employers or neighbors to find out.
“People will go out of their way and travel extensive distances just to avoid that,” says Mahn, the National Coalition director. “People identify locations where they feel safe, where they feel welcome, where they don't feel judged,” Mahn explains, such as community and family planning clinics. They understand those issues and have fees that vary depending on a person’s ability to pay.
Given that these clinics already are understaffed and underfunded, they will be hard pressed to expand services covering the labor intensive testing and monitoring of a doxyPEP regimen. Sexual health clinics don't even have a separate line item in the federal budget for health. That is something the National Association of STI Directors is pushing for in D.C.
DoxyPEP isn't a panacea, and it isn't for everyone. “We really want to try to reach that population who is most likely going to have an STI in the next year,” says Celum, “Because that's where you are going to have the biggest impact.”