Is the value of "personalized medicine" over-promised? Why is the quality of health care declining for many people despite the pace of innovation? Do patients and doctors have conflicting priorities? What is the best path forward?
"How do we generate evidence for value, which is what everyone is asking for?"
Some of the country's leading medical experts recently debated these questions at the prestigious annual Personalized Medicine Conference, held at Harvard Medical School in Boston, and LeapsMag was there to bring you the inside scoop.
Personalized Medicine: Is It Living Up to the Hype?
The buzzworthy phrase "personalized medicine" has been touted for years as the way of the future—customizing care to patients based on their predicted responses to treatments given their individual genetic profiles or other analyses. Since the initial sequencing of the human genome around fifteen years ago, the field of genomics has exploded as the costs have dramatically come down – from $2.7 billion to $1000 or less today. Given cheap access to such crucial information, the medical field has been eager to embrace an ultramodern world in which preventing illnesses is status quo, and treatments can be tailored for maximum effectiveness. But whether that world has finally arrived remains debatable.
"I've been portrayed as an advocate for genomics, because I'm excited about it," said Robert C. Green, Director of the Genomes2People Research Program at Harvard Medical School, the Broad Institute, and Brigham and Women's Hospital. He qualified his advocacy by saying that he tries to remain 'equipoised' or balanced in his opinions about the future of personalized medicine, and expressed skepticism about some aspects of its rapid commercialization.
"I have strong feelings about some of the [precision medicine] products that are rushing out to market in both the physician-mediated space and the consumer space," Green said, and challenged the value and sustainability of these products, such as their clinical utility and ability to help produce favorable health outcomes. He asked what most patients and providers want to know, which is, "What are the medical, behavioral, and economic outcomes? How do we generate evidence for value, which is what everyone is asking for?" He later questioned whether the use of 'sexy' and expensive diagnostic technologies is necessarily better than doing things the old-fashioned way. For instance, it is much easier and cheaper to ask a patient directly about their family history of disease, instead of spending thousands of dollars to obtain the same information with pricey diagnostic tests.
"Our mantra is to try to do data-driven health...to catch disease when it occurs early."
Michael Snyder, Professor & Chair of the Department of Genetics and Director of the Center for Genomics and Personalized Medicine at Stanford University, called himself more of an 'enthusiast' about precision medicine products like wearable devices that can digitally track vital signs, including heart rate and blood oxygen levels. "I'm certainly not equipoised," he said, adding, "Our mantra is to try to do data-driven health. We are using this to try to understand health and catch disease when it occurs early."
Snyder then shared his personal account about how his own wearable device alerted him to seek treatment while he was traveling in Norway. "My blood oxygen was low and my heart rate was high, so that told me something was up," he shared. After seeing a doctor, he discovered he was suffering from Lyme disease. He then shared other similar success stories about some of the patients in his department. Using wearable health sensors, he said, could significantly reduce health care costs: "$245 billion is spent every year on diabetes, and if we reduce that by ten percent we just saved $24 billion."
From left, Robert Green, Michael Snyder, Sandro Galea, and Thomas Miller.
(Courtesy Rachele Hendricks-Sturrup)
A Core Reality: Unresolved Societal Issues
Sandro Galea, Dean and Professor at Boston University's School of Public Health, coined himself as a 'skeptic' but also an 'enormous fan' of new technologies. He said, "I want to make sure that you all [the audience] have the best possible treatment for me when I get sick," but added, "In our rush and enthusiasm to embrace personalized and precision medicine approaches, we have done that at the peril of forgetting a lot of core realities."
"There's no one to pay for health care but all of us."
Galea stressed the need to first address certain difficult societal issues because failing to do so will deter precision medicine cures in the future. "Unless we pay attention to domestic violence, housing, racism, poor access to care, and poverty… we are all going to lose," he said. Then he quoted recent statistics about the country's growing gap in both health and wealth, which could potentially erode patient and provider interest in personalized medicine.
Thomas Miller, the founder and partner of a venture capital firm dedicated to advancing precision medicine, agreed with Galea and said that "there's no one to pay for health care but all of us." He recalled witnessing 'abuse' of diagnostic technologies that he had previously invested in. "They were often used as mechanisms to provide unnecessary care rather than appropriate care," he said. "The trend over my 30-year professional career has been that of sensitivity over specificity."
In other words: doctors rely too heavily on diagnostic tools that are sensitive enough to detect signs of a disease, but not accurate enough to confirm the presence of a specific disease. "You will always find that you're sick from something," Miller said. He lamented the counter-productivity and waste brought on by such 'abuse' and added, "That's money that could be used to address some of the problems that you [Galea] just talked about."
Do Patients and Providers Have Conflicting Priorities?
Distrust in the modern health care system is not new in the United States. That fact that medical errors were the third leading cause of death in 2016 may have fueled this mistrust even more. And the level of mistrust appears correlated with race; a recent survey of 118 adults between 18 to 75 years old showed that black respondents were less likely to trust their doctors than the non-Hispanic white respondents. The black respondents were also more concerned about personal privacy and potentially harmful hospital experimentation.
"The vast majority of physicians in this country are incentivized to keep you sick."
As if this context weren't troubling enough, some of the panelists suggested that health care providers and patients have misaligned goals, which may be financially driven.
For instance, Galea stated that health care is currently 'curative' even though that money is better spent on prevention versus cures. "The vast majority of physicians in this country are incentivized to keep you sick," he declared. "They are paid by sick patient visits. Hospital CEOs are paid by the number of sick people they have in their beds." He highlighted this issue as a national priority and mentioned some case studies showing that the behaviors of hospital CEOs quickly change when payment is based on the number of patients in beds versus the number of patients being kept out of the beds. Green lauded Galea's comment as "good sense."
Green also cautioned the audience about potential financial conflicts of interest held by proponents of precision medicine technologies. "Many of the people who are promoting genomics and personalized medicine are people who have financial interests in that arena," he warned. He emphasized that those who are perhaps curbing the over-enthusiasm do not have financial interests at stake.
What is the Best Path Forward for Personalized Medicine?
As useful as personalized medicine may be for selecting the best course of treatment, there is also the flip side: It can allow doctors to predict who will not respond well—and this painful reality must be acknowledged.
Miller argued, "We have a duty to call out therapies that won't work, that will not heal, that need to be avoided, and that will ultimately lead to you saying to a patient, 'There is nothing for you that will work.'"
Although that may sound harsh, it captures the essence of this emerging paradigm, which is to maximize health by using tailored methods that are based on comparative effectiveness, evidence of outcomes, and patient preferences. After all, as Miller pointed out, it wouldn't do much good to prescribe someone a regimen with little reason to think it might help.
For the hype around personalized medicine to be fully realized, Green concluded, "We have to prove to people that [the value of it] is true."
Glioblastoma is an aggressive and deadly brain cancer, causing more than 10,000 deaths in the US per year. In the last 30 years there has only been limited improvement in the survival rate despite advances in radiation therapy and chemotherapy. Today the typical survival rate is just 14 months and that extra time is spent suffering from the adverse and often brutal effects of radiation and chemotherapy.
Scientists are trying to design more effective treatments for glioblastoma with fewer side effects. Now, a team at the Department of Neurosurgery at Houston Methodist Hospital has created a magnetic helmet-based treatment called oncomagnetic therapy: a promising non-invasive treatment for shrinking cancerous tumors. In the first patient tried, the device was able to reduce the tumor of a glioblastoma patient by 31%. The researchers caution, however, that much more research is needed to determine its safety and effectiveness.
How It Works
“The whole idea originally came from a conversation I had with General Norman Schwarzkopf, a supposedly brilliant military strategist,” says Dr David Baskin, professor of neurosurgery and leader of the effort at Houston Methodist. “I asked him what is the secret to your success and he said, ‘Energy. Take out the power grid and the enemy can't communicate.’ So I thought about what supplies [energy to] cancer, especially brain cancer.”
Baskin came up with the idea of targeting the mitochondria, which process and produce energy for cancer cells.
This is the most exciting thing in glioblastoma treatment I've seen since I've been a neurosurgeon but it is very preliminary.”
The magnetic helmet creates a powerful oscillating magnetic field. At a set range of frequencies and timings, it disrupts the flow of electrons in the mitochondria of cancer cells. This leads to a release of certain chemicals called ROS (Reactive Oxygen Species). In normal cells, this excess ROS is much lower, and is neutralized by other chemicals called antioxidants.
However, cancer cells already have more ROS: they grow rapidly and uncontrollably so their mitochondria need to produce more energy which in turn generates more ROS. By using the powerful magnetic field, levels of ROS get so high that the malignant cells are torn apart.
The biggest challenge was working out the specific range of frequencies and timing parameters they needed to use to kill cancer cells. It took skill, intuition, luck and lots of experiments. The helmet could theoretically be used to treat all types of glioblastoma.
Developing the magnetic helmet was a collaborative process. Dr Santosh Helekar is a neuroscientist at Houston Methodist Research Institute and the director of oncomagnetics (magnetic cancer therapies) at the Peak Center in Houston Methodist Hospital. His previous invention with colleagues gave the team a starting point to build on. “About 7 years back I developed a portable brain magnetic stimulation device to conduct brain research,” Helekar says. “We [then] conducted a pilot clinical trial in stroke patients. The results were promising.”
Helekar presented his findings to neurosurgeons including Baskin. They decided to collaborate. With a team of scientists behind them, they modified the device to kill cancer cells.
The magnetic helmet studied for treatment of glioblastoma
Dr. David Baskin
After success in the lab, the team got FDA approval to conduct a compassionate trial in a 53-year-old man with end-stage glioblastoma. He had tried every other treatment available. But within 30 days of using the magnetic helmet his tumor shrank by 31%.
Sadly, 36 days into the treatment, the patient had an unrelated head injury due to a fall. The treatment was paused and he later died of the injury. Autopsy results of his brain highlighted the dramatic reduction in tumor cells.
Baskin says, “This is the most exciting thing in glioblastoma treatment I've seen since I've been a neurosurgeon but it is very preliminary.”
The helmet is part of a growing number of non-invasive cancer treatments. One device that is currently being used by glioblastoma patients is Optune. It uses electric fields called tumor treating fields to slow down cell division and has been through a successful phase 3 clinical trial.
The magnetic helmet has the promise to be another useful non-invasive treatment according to Professor Gabriel Zada, a neurosurgeon and director of the USC Brain Tumor Center. “We're learning that various electromagnetic fields and tumor treating fields appear to play a role in glioblastoma. So there is some precedent for this though the tumor treating fields work a little differently. I think there is major potential for it to be effective but of course it will require some trials.”
Professor Jonathan Sherman, a neurosurgeon and director of neuro-oncology at West Virginia University, reiterates the need for further testing. “It sounds interesting but it’s too early to tell what kind of long-term efficacy you get. We do not have enough data. Also if you’re disrupting [the magnetic field] you could negatively impact a patient. You could be affecting the normal conduction of electromagnetic activity in the brain.”
The team is currently extending their research. They are now testing the treatment in two other patients with end-stage glioblastoma. The immediate challenge is getting FDA approval for those at an earlier stage of the disease who are more likely to benefit.
Baskin and the team are designing a clinical trial in the U.S., .U.K. and Germany. After positive results in cell cultures, they’re in negotiations to collaborate with other researchers in using the technology for lung and breast cancer. With breast cancer, the soft tissue is easier to access so a magnetic device could be worn over the breast.
“My hope is to develop a treatment to treat and hopefully cure glioblastoma without radiation or chemotherapy,” Baskin says. “We're onto a strategy that could make a huge difference for patients with this disease and probably for patients with many other forms of cancer.”
Astronauts at the International Space Station today depend on pre-packaged, freeze-dried food, plus some fresh produce thanks to regular resupply missions. This supply chain, however, will not be available on trips further out, such as the moon or Mars. So what are astronauts on long missions going to eat?
Going by the options available now, says Christel Paille, an engineer at the European Space Agency, a lunar expedition is likely to have only dehydrated foods. “So no more fresh product, and a limited amount of already hydrated product in cans.”
For the Mars mission, the situation is a bit more complex, she says. Prepackaged food could still constitute most of their food, “but combined with [on site] production of certain food products…to get them fresh.” A Mars mission isn’t right around the corner, but scientists are currently working on solutions for how to feed those astronauts. A number of boundary-pushing efforts are now underway.
The logistics of growing plants in space, of course, are very different from Earth. There is no gravity, sunlight, or atmosphere. High levels of ionizing radiation stunt plant growth. Plus, plants take up a lot of space, something that is, ironically, at a premium up there. These and special nutritional requirements of spacefarers have given scientists some specific and challenging problems.
To study fresh food production systems, NASA runs the Vegetable Production System (Veggie) on the ISS. Deployed in 2014, Veggie has been growing salad-type plants on “plant pillows” filled with growth media, including a special clay and controlled-release fertilizer, and a passive wicking watering system. They have had some success growing leafy greens and even flowers.
"Ideally, we would like a system which has zero waste and, therefore, needs zero input, zero additional resources."
A larger farming facility run by NASA on the ISS is the Advanced Plant Habitat to study how plants grow in space. This fully-automated, closed-loop system has an environmentally controlled growth chamber and is equipped with sensors that relay real-time information about temperature, oxygen content, and moisture levels back to the ground team at Kennedy Space Center in Florida. In December 2020, the ISS crew feasted on radishes grown in the APH.
“But salad doesn’t give you any calories,” says Erik Seedhouse, a researcher at the Applied Aviation Sciences Department at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Florida. “It gives you some minerals, but it doesn’t give you a lot of carbohydrates.” Seedhouse also noted in his 2020 book Life Support Systems for Humans in Space: “Integrating the growing of plants into a life support system is a fiendishly difficult enterprise.” As a case point, he referred to the ESA’s Micro-Ecological Life Support System Alternative (MELiSSA) program that has been running since 1989 to integrate growing of plants in a closed life support system such as a spacecraft.
Paille, one of the scientists running MELiSSA, says that the system aims to recycle the metabolic waste produced by crew members back into the metabolic resources required by them: “The aim is…to come [up with] a closed, sustainable system which does not [need] any logistics resupply.” MELiSSA uses microorganisms to process human excretions in order to harvest carbon dioxide and nitrate to grow plants. “Ideally, we would like a system which has zero waste and, therefore, needs zero input, zero additional resources,” Paille adds.
Microorganisms play a big role as “fuel” in food production in extreme places, including in space. Last year, researchers discovered Methylobacterium strains on the ISS, including some never-seen-before species. Kasthuri Venkateswaran of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, one of the researchers involved in the study, says, “[The] isolation of novel microbes that help to promote the plant growth under stressful conditions is very essential… Certain bacteria can decompose complex matter into a simple nutrient [that] the plants can absorb.” These microbes, which have already adapted to space conditions—such as the absence of gravity and increased radiation—boost various plant growth processes and help withstand the harsh physical environment.
MELiSSA, says Paille, has demonstrated that it is possible to grow plants in space. “This is important information because…we didn’t know whether the space environment was affecting the biological cycle of the plant…[and of] cyanobacteria.” With the scientific and engineering aspects of a closed, self-sustaining life support system becoming clearer, she says, the next stage is to find out if it works in space. They plan to run tests recycling human urine into useful components, including those that promote plant growth.
The MELiSSA pilot plant uses rats currently, and needs to be translated for human subjects for further studies. “Demonstrating the process and well-being of a rat in terms of providing water, sufficient oxygen, and recycling sufficient carbon dioxide, in a non-stressful manner, is one thing,” Paille says, “but then, having a human in the loop [means] you also need to integrate user interfaces from the operational point of view.”
Growing food in space comes with an additional caveat that underscores its high stakes. Barbara Demmig-Adams from the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at the University of Colorado Boulder explains, “There are conditions that actually will hurt your health more than just living here on earth. And so the need for nutritious food and micronutrients is even greater for an astronaut than for [you and] me.”
Demmig-Adams, who has worked on increasing the nutritional quality of plants for long-duration spaceflight missions, also adds that there is no need to reinvent the wheel. Her work has focused on duckweed, a rather unappealingly named aquatic plant. “It is 100 percent edible, grows very fast, it’s very small, and like some other floating aquatic plants, also produces a lot of protein,” she says. “And here on Earth, studies have shown that the amount of protein you get from the same area of these floating aquatic plants is 20 times higher compared to soybeans.”
Aquatic plants also tend to grow well in microgravity: “Plants that float on water, they don’t respond to gravity, they just hug the water film… They don’t need to know what’s up and what’s down.” On top of that, she adds, “They also produce higher concentrations of really important micronutrients, antioxidants that humans need, especially under space radiation.” In fact, duckweed, when subjected to high amounts of radiation, makes nutrients called carotenoids that are crucial for fighting radiation damage. “We’ve looked at dozens and dozens of plants, and the duckweed makes more of this radiation fighter…than anything I’ve seen before.”
Despite all the scientific advances and promising leads, no one really knows what the conditions so far out in space will be and what new challenges they will bring. As Paille says, “There are known unknowns and unknown unknowns.”
One definite “known” for astronauts is that growing their food is the ideal scenario for space travel in the long term since “[taking] all your food along with you, for best part of two years, that’s a lot of space and a lot of weight,” as Seedhouse says. That said, once they land on Mars, they’d have to think about what to eat all over again. “Then you probably want to start building a greenhouse and growing food there [as well],” he adds.
And that is a whole different challenge altogether.