Elaine Kamil had just returned home after a few days of business meetings in 2013 when she started having chest pains. At first Kamil, then 66, wasn't worried—she had had some chest pain before and recently went to a cardiologist to do a stress test, which was normal.
"I can't be having a heart attack because I just got checked," she thought, attributing the discomfort to stress and high demands of her job. A pediatric nephrologist at Cedars-Sinai Hospital in Los Angeles, she takes care of critically ill children who are on dialysis or are kidney transplant patients. Supporting families through difficult times and answering calls at odd hours is part of her daily routine, and often leaves her exhausted.
She figured the pain would go away. But instead, it intensified that night. Kamil's husband drove her to the Cedars-Sinai hospital, where she was admitted to the coronary care unit. It turned out she wasn't having a heart attack after all. Instead, she was diagnosed with a much less common but nonetheless dangerous heart condition called takotsubo syndrome, or broken heart syndrome.
A heart attack happens when blood flow to the heart is obstructed—such as when an artery is blocked—causing heart muscle tissue to die. In takotsubo syndrome, the blood flow isn't blocked, but the heart doesn't pump it properly. The heart changes its shape and starts to resemble a Japanese fishing device called tako-tsubo, a clay pot with a wider body and narrower mouth, used to catch octopus.
"The heart muscle is stunned and doesn't function properly anywhere from three days to three weeks," explains Noel Bairey Merz, the cardiologist at Cedar Sinai who Kamil went to see after she was discharged.
"The heart muscle is stunned and doesn't function properly anywhere from three days to three weeks."
But even though the heart isn't permanently damaged, mortality rates due to takotsubo syndrome are comparable to those of a heart attack, Merz notes—about 4-5 percent of patients die from the attack, and 20 percent within the next five years. "It's as bad as a heart attack," Merz says—only it's much less known, even to doctors. The condition affects only about 1 percent of people, and there are around 15,000 new cases annually. It's diagnosed using a cardiac ventriculogram, an imaging test that allows doctors to see how the heart pumps blood.
Scientists don't fully understand what causes Takotsubo syndrome, but it usually occurs after extreme emotional or physical stress. Doctors think it's triggered by a so-called catecholamine storm, a phenomenon in which the body releases too much catecholamines—hormones involved in the fight-or-flight response. Evolutionarily, when early humans lived in savannas or forests and had to either fight off predators or flee from them, these hormones gave our ancestors the needed strength and stamina to take either action. Released by nerve endings and by the adrenal glands that sit on top of the kidneys, these hormones still flood our bodies in moments of stress, but an overabundance of them could sometimes be damaging.
A study by scientists at Harvard Medical School linked increased risk of takotsubo to higher activity in the amygdala, a brain region responsible for emotions that's involved in responses to stress. The scientists believe that chronic stress makes people more susceptible to the syndrome. Notably, one small study suggested that the number of Takotsubo cases increased during the COVID-19 pandemic.
There are no specific drugs to treat takotsubo, so doctors rely on supportive therapies, which include medications typically used for high blood pressure and heart failure. In most cases, the heart returns to its normal shape within a few weeks. "It's a spontaneous recovery—the catecholamine storm is resolved, the injury trigger is removed and the heart heals itself because our bodies have an amazing healing capacity," Merz says. It also helps that tissues remain intact. 'The heart cells don't die, they just aren't functioning properly for some time."
That's the good news. The bad news is that takotsubo is likely to strike again—in 5-20 percent of patients the condition comes back, sometimes more severe than before.
That's exactly what happened to Kamil. After getting her diagnosis in 2013, she realized that she actually had a previous takotsubo episode. In 2010, she experienced similar symptoms after her son died. "The night after he died, I was having severe chest pain at night, but I was too overwhelmed with grief to do anything about it," she recalls. After a while, the pain subsided and didn't return until three years later.
For weeks after her second attack, she felt exhausted, listless and anxious. "You lose confidence in your body," she says. "You have these little twinges on your chest, or if you start having arrhythmia, and you wonder if this is another episode coming up. It's really unnerving because you don't know how to read these cues." And that's very typical, Merz says. Even when the heart muscle appears to recover, patients don't return to normal right away. They have shortens of breath, they can't exercise, and they stay anxious and worried for a while.
Women over the age of 50 are diagnosed with takotsubo more often than other demographics. However, it happens in men too, although it typically strikes after physical stress, such as a triathlon or an exhausting day of cycling. Young people can also get takotsubo. Older patients are hospitalized more often, but younger people tend to have more severe complications. It could be because an older person may go for a jog while younger one may run a marathon, which would take a stronger toll on the body of a person who's predisposed to the condition.
Notably, the emotional stressors don't always have to be negative—the heart muscle can get out of shape from good emotions, too. "There have been case reports of takotsubo at weddings," Merz says. Moreover, one out of three or four takotsubo patients experience no apparent stress, she adds. "So it could be that it's not so much the catecholamine storm itself, but the body's reaction to it—the physiological reaction deeply embedded into out physiology," she explains.
Merz and her team are working to understand what makes people predisposed to takotsubo. They think a person's genetics play a role, but they haven't yet pinpointed genes that seem to be responsible. Genes code for proteins, which affect how the body metabolizes various compounds, which, in turn, affect the body's response to stress. Pinning down the protein involved in takotsubo susceptibility would allow doctors to develop screening tests and identify those prone to severe repeating attacks. It will also help develop medications that can either prevent it or treat it better than just waiting for the body to heal itself.
Researchers at the Imperial College London found that elevated levels of certain types of microRNAs—molecules involved in protein production—increase the chances of developing takotsubo.
In one study, researchers tried treating takotsubo in mice with a drug called suberanilohydroxamic acid, or SAHA, typically used for cancer treatment. The drug improved cardiac health and reversed the broken heart in rodents. It remains to be seen if the drug would have a similar effect on humans. But identifying a drug that shows promise is progress, Merz says. "I'm glad that there's research in this area."
This article was originally published by Leaps.org on July 28, 2021.
Bile duct cancer is a rare and aggressive form of cancer that is often difficult to diagnose. Patients with advanced forms of the disease have an average life expectancy of less than two years.
Many patients who get cancer in their bile ducts – the tubes that carry digestive fluid from the liver to the small intestine – have mutations in the protein FGFR2, which leads cells to grow uncontrollably. One treatment option is chemotherapy, but it’s toxic to both cancer cells and healthy cells, failing to distinguish between the two. Increasingly, cancer researchers are focusing on biomarker directed therapy, or making drugs that target a particular molecule that causes the disease – FGFR2, in the case of bile duct cancer.
A problem is that in targeting FGFR2, these drugs inadvertently inhibit the FGFR1 protein, which looks almost identical. This causes elevated phosphate levels, which is a sign of kidney damage, so doses are often limited to prevent complications.
In recent years, though, a company called Relay has taken a unique approach to picking out FGFR2, using a powerful supercomputer to simulate how proteins move and change shape. The team, leveraging this AI capability, discovered that FGFR2 and FGFR1 move differently, which enabled them to create a more precise drug.
Preliminary studies have shown robust activity of this drug, called RLY-4008, in FGFR2 altered tumors, especially in bile duct cancer. The drug did not inhibit FGFR1 or cause significant side effects. “RLY-4008 is a prime example of a precision oncology therapeutic with its highly selective and potent targeting of FGFR2 genetic alterations and resistance mutations,” says Lipika Goyal, assistant professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School. She is a principal investigator of Relay’s phase 1-2 clinical trial.
Boosts from AI and a billionaire
Traditional drug design has been very much a case of trial and error, as scientists investigate many molecules to see which ones bind to the intended target and bind less to other targets.
“It’s being done almost blindly, without really being guided by structure, so it fails very often,” says Olivier Elemento, associate director of the Institute for Computational Biomedicine at Cornell. “The issue is that they are not sampling enough molecules to cover some of the chemical space that would be specific to the target of interest and not specific to others.”
Relay’s unique hardware and software allow simulations that could never be achieved through traditional experiments, Elemento says.
Some scientists have tried to use X-rays of crystallized proteins to look at the structure of proteins and design better drugs. But they have failed to account for an important factor: proteins are moving and constantly folding into different shapes.
David Shaw, a hedge fund billionaire, wanted to help improve drug discovery and understood that a key obstacle was that computer models of molecular dynamics were limited; they simulated motion for less than 10 millionths of a second.
In 2001, Shaw set up his own research facility, D.E. Shaw Research, to create a supercomputer that would be specifically designed to simulate protein motion. Seven years later, he succeeded in firing up a supercomputer that can now conduct high speed simulations roughly 100 times faster than others. Called Anton, it has special computer chips to enable this speed, and its software is powered by AI to conduct many simulations.
After creating the supercomputer, Shaw teamed up with leading scientists who were interested in molecular motion, and they founded Relay Therapeutics.
Elemento believes that Relay’s approach is highly beneficial in designing a better drug for bile duct cancer. “Relay Therapeutics has a cutting-edge approach for molecular dynamics that I don’t believe any other companies have, at least not as advanced.” Relay’s unique hardware and software allow simulations that could never be achieved through traditional experiments, Elemento says.
How it works
Relay used both experimental and computational approaches to design RLY-4008. The team started out by taking X-rays of crystallized versions of both their intended target, FGFR2, and the almost identical FGFR1. This enabled them to get a 3D snapshot of each of their structures. They then fed the X-rays into the Anton supercomputer to simulate how the proteins were likely to move.
Anton’s simulations showed that the FGFR1 protein had a flap that moved more frequently than FGFR2. Based on this distinct motion, the team tried to design a compound that would recognize this flap shifting around and bind to FGFR2 while steering away from its more active lookalike.
For that, they went back Anton, using the supercomputer to simulate the behavior of thousands of potential molecules for over a year, looking at what made a particular molecule selective to the target versus another molecule that wasn’t. These insights led them to determine the best compounds to make and test in the lab and, ultimately, they found that RLY-4008 was the most effective.
Promising results so far
Relay began phase 1-2 trials in 2020 and will continue until 2024. Preliminary results showed that, in the 17 patients taking a 70 mg dose of RLY-4008, the drug worked to shrink tumors in 88 percent of patients. This was a significant increase compared to other FGFR inhibitors. For instance, Futibatinib, which recently got FDA approval, had a response rate of only 42 percent.
Across all dose levels, RLY-4008 shrank tumors by 63 percent in 38 patients. In more good news, the drug didn’t elevate their phosphate levels, which suggests that it could be taken without increasing patients’ risk for kidney disease.
“Objectively, this is pretty remarkable,” says Elemento. “In a small patient study, you have a molecule that is able to shrink tumors in such a high fraction of patients. It is unusual to see such good results in a phase 1-2 trial.”
A simulated future
The research team is continuing to use molecular dynamic simulations to develop other new drug, such as one that is being studied in patients with solid tumors and breast cancer.
As for their bile duct cancer drug, RLY-4008, Relay plans by 2024 to have tested it in around 440 patients. “The mature results of the phase 1-2 trial are highly anticipated,” says Goyal, the principal investigator of the trial.
Sameek Roychowdhury, an oncologist and associate professor of internal medicine at Ohio State University, highlights the need for caution. “This has early signs of benefit, but we will look forward to seeing longer term results for benefit and side effect profiles. We need to think a few more steps ahead - these treatments are like the ’Whack-a-Mole game’ where cancer finds a way to become resistant to each subsequent drug.”
“I think the issue is going to be how durable are the responses to the drug and what are the mechanisms of resistance,” says Raymond Wadlow, an oncologist at the Inova Medical Group who specializes in gastrointestinal and haematological cancer. “But the results look promising. It is a much more selective inhibitor of the FGFR protein and less toxic. It’s been an exciting development.”
In May 2022, Californian biotech Ultima Genomics announced that its UG 100 platform was capable of sequencing an entire human genome for just $100, a landmark moment in the history of the field. The announcement was particularly remarkable because few had previously heard of the company, a relative unknown in an industry long dominated by global giant Illumina which controls about 80 percent of the world’s sequencing market.
Ultima’s secret was to completely revamp many technical aspects of the way Illumina have traditionally deciphered DNA. The process usually involves first splitting the double helix DNA structure into single strands, then breaking these strands into short fragments which are laid out on a glass surface called a flow cell. When this flow cell is loaded into the sequencing machine, color-coded tags are attached to each individual base letter. A laser scans the bases individually while a camera simultaneously records the color associated with them, a process which is repeated until every single fragment has been sequenced.
Instead, Ultima has found a series of shortcuts to slash the cost and boost efficiency. “Ultima Genomics has developed a fundamentally new sequencing architecture designed to scale beyond conventional approaches,” says Josh Lauer, Ultima’s chief commercial officer.
This ‘new architecture’ is a series of subtle but highly impactful tweaks to the sequencing process ranging from replacing the costly flow cell with a silicon wafer which is both cheaper and allows more DNA to be read at once, to utilizing machine learning to convert optical data into usable information.
To put $100 genome in perspective, back in 2012 the cost of sequencing a single genome was around $10,000, a price tag which dropped to $1,000 a few years later. Before Ultima’s announcement, the cost of sequencing an individual genome was around $600.
Several studies have found that nearly 12 percent of healthy people who have their genome sequenced, then discover they have a variant pointing to a heightened risk of developing a disease that can be monitored, treated or prevented.
While Ultima’s new machine is not widely available yet, Illumina’s response has been rapid. Last month the company unveiled the NovaSeq X series, which it describes as its fastest most cost-efficient sequencing platform yet, capable of sequencing genomes at $200, with further price cuts likely to follow.
But what will the rapidly tumbling cost of sequencing actually mean for medicine? “Well to start with, obviously it’s going to mean more people getting their genome sequenced,” says Michael Snyder, professor of genetics at Stanford University. “It'll be a lot more accessible to people.”
At the moment sequencing is mainly limited to certain cancer patients where it is used to inform treatment options, and individuals with undiagnosed illnesses. In the past, initiatives such as SeqFirst have attempted further widen access to genome sequencing based on growing amounts of research illustrating the potential benefits of the technology in healthcare. Several studies have found that nearly 12 percent of healthy people who have their genome sequenced, then discover they have a variant pointing to a heightened risk of developing a disease that can be monitored, treated or prevented.
“While whole genome sequencing is not yet widely used in the U.S., it has started to come into pediatric critical care settings such as newborn intensive care units,” says Professor Michael Bamshad, who heads the genetic medicine division in the University of Washington’s pediatrics department. “It is also being used more often in outpatient clinical genetics services, particularly when conventional testing fails to identify explanatory variants.”
But the cost of sequencing itself is only one part of the price tag. The subsequent clinical interpretation and genetic counselling services often come to several thousand dollars, a cost which insurers are not always willing to pay.
As a result, while Bamshad and others hope that the arrival of the $100 genome will create new opportunities to use genetic testing in innovative ways, the most immediate benefits are likely to come in the realm of research.
There are numerous ways in which cheaper sequencing is likely to advance scientific research, for example the ability to collect data on much larger patient groups. This will be a major boon to scientists working on complex heterogeneous diseases such as schizophrenia or depression where there are many genes involved which all exert subtle effects, as well as substantial variance across the patient population. Bigger studies could help scientists identify subgroups of patients where the disease appears to be driven by similar gene variants, who can then be more precisely targeted with specific drugs.
If insurers can figure out the economics, Snyder even foresees a future where at a certain age, all of us can qualify for annual sequencing of our blood cells to search for early signs of cancer or the potential onset of other diseases like type 2 diabetes.
David Curtis, a genetics professor at University College London, says that scientists studying these illnesses have previously been forced to rely on genome-wide association studies which are limited because they only identify common gene variants. “We might see a significant increase in the number of large association studies using sequence data,” he says. “It would be far preferable to use this because it provides information about rare, potentially functional variants.”
Cheaper sequencing will also aid researchers working on diseases which have traditionally been underfunded. Bamshad cites cystic fibrosis, a condition which affects around 40,000 children and adults in the U.S., as one particularly pertinent example.
“Funds for gene discovery for rare diseases are very limited,” he says. “We’re one of three sites that did whole genome sequencing on 5,500 people with cystic fibrosis, but our statistical power is limited. A $100 genome would make it much more feasible to sequence everyone in the U.S. with cystic fibrosis and make it more likely that we discover novel risk factors and pathways influencing clinical outcomes.”
For progressive diseases that are more common like cancer and type 2 diabetes, as well as neurodegenerative conditions like multiple sclerosis and ALS, geneticists will be able to go even further and afford to sequence individual tumor cells or neurons at different time points. This will enable them to analyze how individual DNA modifications like methylation, change as the disease develops.
In the case of cancer, this could help scientists understand how tumors evolve to evade treatments. Within in a clinical setting, the ability to sequence not just one, but many different cells across a patient’s tumor could point to the combination of treatments which offer the best chance of eradicating the entire cancer.
“What happens at the moment with a solid tumor is you treat with one drug, and maybe 80 percent of that tumor is susceptible to that drug,” says Neil Ward, vice president and general manager in the EMEA region for genomics company PacBio. “But the other 20 percent of the tumor has already got mutations that make it resistant, which is probably why a lot of modern therapies extend life for sadly only a matter of months rather than curing, because they treat a big percentage of the tumor, but not the whole thing. So going forwards, I think that we will see genomics play a huge role in cancer treatments, through using multiple modalities to treat someone's cancer.”
If insurers can figure out the economics, Snyder even foresees a future where at a certain age, all of us can qualify for annual sequencing of our blood cells to search for early signs of cancer or the potential onset of other diseases like type 2 diabetes.
“There are companies already working on looking for cancer signatures in methylated DNA,” he says. “If it was determined that you had early stage cancer, pre-symptomatically, that could then be validated with targeted MRI, followed by surgery or chemotherapy. It makes a big difference catching cancer early. If there were signs of type 2 diabetes, you could start taking steps to mitigate your glucose rise, and possibly prevent it or at least delay the onset.”
This would already revolutionize the way we seek to prevent a whole range of illnesses, but others feel that the $100 genome could also usher in even more powerful and controversial preventative medicine schemes.
In the eyes of Kári Stefánsson, the Icelandic neurologist who been a visionary for so many advances in the field of human genetics over the last 25 years, the falling cost of sequencing means it will be feasible to sequence the genomes of every baby born.
“We have recently done an analysis of genomes in Iceland and the UK Biobank, and in 4 percent of people you find mutations that lead to serious disease, that can be prevented or dealt with,” says Stefansson, CEO of deCODE genetics, a subsidiary of the pharmaceutical company Amgen. “This could transform our healthcare systems.”
As well as identifying newborns with rare diseases, this kind of genomic information could be used to compute a person’s risk score for developing chronic illnesses later in life. If for example, they have a higher than average risk of colon or breast cancer, they could be pre-emptively scheduled for annual colonoscopies or mammograms as soon as they hit adulthood.
To a limited extent, this is already happening. In the UK, Genomics England has launched the Newborn Genomes Programme, which plans to undertake whole-genome sequencing of up to 200,000 newborn babies, with the aim of enabling the early identification of rare genetic diseases.
"I have not had my own genome sequenced and I would not have wanted my parents to have agreed to this," Curtis says. "I don’t see that sequencing children for the sake of some vague, ill-defined benefits could ever be justifiable.”
However, some scientists feel that it is tricky to justify sequencing the genomes of apparently healthy babies, given the data privacy issues involved. They point out that we still know too little about the links which can be drawn between genetic information at birth, and risk of chronic illness later in life.
“I think there are very difficult ethical issues involved in sequencing children if there are no clear and immediate clinical benefits,” says Curtis. “They cannot consent to this process. I have not had my own genome sequenced and I would not have wanted my parents to have agreed to this. I don’t see that sequencing children for the sake of some vague, ill-defined benefits could ever be justifiable.”
Curtis points out that there are many inherent risks about this data being available. It may fall into the hands of insurance companies, and it could even be used by governments for surveillance purposes.
“Genetic sequence data is very useful indeed for forensic purposes. Its full potential has yet to be realized but identifying rare variants could provide a quick and easy way to find relatives of a perpetrator,” he says. “If large numbers of people had been sequenced in a healthcare system then it could be difficult for a future government to resist the temptation to use this as a resource to investigate serious crimes.”
While sequencing becoming more widely available will present difficult ethical and moral challenges, it will offer many benefits for society as a whole. Cheaper sequencing will help boost the diversity of genomic datasets which have traditionally been skewed towards individuals of white, European descent, meaning that much of the actionable medical information which has come out of these studies is not relevant to people of other ethnicities.
Ward predicts that in the coming years, the growing amount of genetic information will ultimately change the outcomes for many with rare, previously incurable illnesses.
“If you're the parent of a child that has a susceptible or a suspected rare genetic disease, their genome will get sequenced, and while sadly that doesn’t always lead to treatments, it’s building up a knowledge base so companies can spring up and target that niche of a disease,” he says. “As a result there’s a whole tidal wave of new therapies that are going to come to market over the next five years, as the genetic tools we have, mature and evolve.”