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It’s All About the Genes and the Brain Machines

In 2012, genomics tiptoed into the doctor’s office, gene therapy rose again, and man and machine united.
December 24, 2012

The amount of time and money needed to sequence genomes continued to fall this year, perhaps to no one’s surprise. But while the field seemed to be finally approaching the heralded $1,000 human genome, the implications of reaching that milestone are not clear. Without expert analysis, the result of sequencing a human genome is just a large file of letters. You still need to manipulate and understand what those letters mean. Different companies announced services to help, from initial processing and storage of data to interpretation of the genetic data into medical meaning.

Gene medicine: Increasingly, genomic information is being used in the practice of medicine. Meanwhile, attempts at using gene therapy to treat rare genetic diseases is enjoying a resurgence.

As human genomics garnered more attention from the medical community, the technology attracted new business opportunities. In April, the company behind the most widely used DNA sequencer, Illumina, fought off a hostile bid from pharmaceutical giant Roche. Just seven months later, Illumina tried to take over Complete Genomics, a company with technology well suited to medical genomics but which has never achieved financial success. That offer followed what seemed to be an all-but-assured purchased of Complete Genomics by China’s BGI. Illumina and BGI continue to fight over Complete Genomics.

Still, the medical community is only at the cusp of its understanding of how genome sequences can be used to help patients. Two branches of medicine that seem to be at the forefront of bringing on board DNA technology are reproductive medicine and cancer. Early in the summer, scientists at the University of Washington in Seattle reported a technique for determining the genome sequence of a fetus by analyzing DNA in the mother’s blood and from the father. Illumina’s CEO Jay Flatley said that prenatal diagnostics will be a major focus for the company, which has been expanding its business from sequencer manufacturing to broad DNA analysis service. In September, Illumina purchased BlueGnome, a chromosome-focused diagnostic company whose technology can detect abnormal numbers of chromosomes in IVF embryos. DNA analysis could also help prior to conception, according to a start-up called GenePeeks. That company announced it would offer predictive genome analysis for sperm bank clients to help guide them away from risky donor matches.  

Cancer patients and their doctors were also early adopters of medical genome science this year. Cancer is a disease of the genome: genetic mutations lead to abnormal cellular proliferation and behavior. Each person’s tumor and even different cells within a single tumor can have a unique profile of mutations, which makes finding the right drug to treat each patient difficult. Cambridge, Massachusetts-based  Foundation Medicine offered a sequencing service that searches for mutations that can be addressed with drugs in a patient’s tumor. Another Cambridge company, H3 Biomedicine, is using public databases of tumor sequences to find new drug targets specific to certain patient populations. 

Genetic medicines also got a boost with the first Western approval of gene therapy in November. Amsterdam-based Uniqure will begin selling its virus-mediated gene correction for a rare metabolic disorder sometime next year. The announcement could be good news for other companies trying to develop gene therapies as well as other groups developing molecular medicines, such as gene-silencing RNAi treatments that continue to move through clinical trials.

Although still untested in patients, another genetic manipulation is proving to be a powerful tool for neuroscientists. With optogenetics, scientists can manipulate neuron activity with flashes of light, and this year a group demonstrated for the first time that primate behavior could be controlled with the technique. Lab animal studies this year suggest optogenetics might one day help patients with blindness caused by retinal degeneration.

The melding of mind and machine was also big this year. Scientists in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, demonstrated that a brain implant could replace some cognitive function in primates, which could one day help people with brain damage. On the flip side, two research groups published the first accounts of quadriplegic people using brain implants to control robotic limbs. The implants recorded the participants’ intentions to move, which were translated by a computer into instructions for a robotic arm. The idea is that one day people with severe paralysis or amputations could use such neural prosthetics at home to help with the tasks of daily life.

Brain electronics were also implanted into Alzheimer’s patients this year in an attempt to slow a disease that has so far evaded pharmaceutical treatment.  The urgency for treatment is growing, but the community still doesn’t know what sets into motion the cascade of molecular events that robs people of their memory and thinking skills. With better diagnostic tools and the discovery that there are warnings decades before symptoms, scientists are turning to treating patients with a genetic predisposition for the disease before they start having symptoms. Perhaps this will be the key to treatments in future years. 

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