Genomics has the power to transform medicine — but it must be made accessible
This article is part of a Technology and Innovation Insights series paid for by Samsung.
In this episode of The Next Wave, Young Sohn sits down with Lisa Alderson, CEO of Genome Medical, an innovative healthcare firm that is working hard to ensure that genomic medicine is made accessible to everyone.
Alderson shares her views on a range of issues around genomics. She discusses the vast promise of the technology and her company’s efforts to bring its game-changing potential to all patients by providing clinical support tools to non-genetics professionals. She also addresses the ethical questions raised by genomics, particularly its use in prenatal diagnostics. And she highlights the critical role genomics played in developing COVID vaccines in record time.
Genomics is swiftly moving to the forefront of medicine. This potentially limitless technology is transforming health care by making it more targeted, personalized, and proactive.
Genomics can not only help with preventive care but also with determining treatment options for chronic ailments such as heart disease. It is becoming essential in reproductive health counseling, as well as in screening for infertility and newborn genetic disorders. And it is proving to be instrumental in the development of advanced therapeutics for diseases such as cancer and even for treating global outbreaks like COVID-19.
But, to date, there has been one big problem with genomic medicine: access. Lisa Alderson, CEO of Genome Medical, explains that even though the technology is now advanced, the vast majority of patients are still not getting access to genomics, even when it can be medically beneficial. This is mostly due to insurance barriers, a broad lack of clinical understanding, and the sheer volume and complexity of new tests being brought to market.
Her company is on a mission to change the dynamic by bringing genome-enabled health care to everyone through Genome Medical’s extensive network of genetic specialists and a technology platform delivering “genomics as a service.”
Genomics for all patients
Alderson points out that virtually everybody can benefit from access to genetic insights. Not only does genetics offer the promise of getting the right therapy to the right patient at the right time, it can also uncover new information to better inform clinical care.
And as genomics advances, its ability to detect and treat diseases like cancer vastly improves. As a result, the technology is increasingly important not just for individuals with rare genetic conditions but for everyone — from birth to old age.
Historically, for instance, only one or two genes were used to test for hereditary breast cancer or ovarian cancer. But because the science has evolved, we now know there are 11 genes that can help detect hereditary breast and ovarian cancer. In fact, says Alderson, there are over a hundred genes that can increase our risk of cancer. So as genetic testing becomes more precise and accurate, it has the potential to save exponentially more lives.
A SaaS platform to increase access
One way to help genomics reach its full potential is by providing clinical support tools to non-genetics professionals. This will allow them to better understand which patients would benefit from what tests, and how to interpret and use the resulting information to guide clinical care.
One quandary, of course, is that most local health care systems don’t have full-time metabolic geneticists on staff. As a result, they end up referring their patients out to leading academic centers, which is where the bulk of genomic health care is carried out today. And that means local health systems could lose those patients for the full continuum of their care.
To address this, Genome Medical’s “genomics as a service” SaaS platform provides rapid patient education and engagement and also supports providers with the necessary clinical tools and knowledge they need to utilize genomics, as appropriate. Alderson says she wants every hospital and health system to have access to genomics in its community setting.
Genetic testing for all medical professionals
Alderson is increasingly heartened by the fact that genetic testing is expanding beyond its origins in prenatal medicine and oncology to new areas such cardiology, endocrinology, nephrology, and urology.
In the past, for example, most urologists did not have strong use cases for ordering genetic testing. But now, genetic testing is recommended for nearly every metastatic prostate cancer patient. Ultimately, genomics will touch all medical professionals, whether they are pediatricians, oncologists, cardiologists, neurologists, urologists — the list goes on and on.
“We’re sitting at the precipice of what is a huge inflection point in the use of genetics and genomics,” says Alderson. “We’re going to see it having a profound impact on human health, not just for prevention but also to get a deeper understanding of what is causing the disease — and thus a richer opportunity to improve how we treat disease. We’re getting to the root cause rather than just observing symptoms and then trying to treat those symptoms.”
Moral and ethical questions
It needs to be mentioned that genomics is not without controversy. With new genetic capabilities comes much debate about how they should be used. For instance, can genetic information be used by insurance companies to discriminate against those with risk factors for certain disorders?
Or what about the use of genetic testing to determine whether you’re having a healthy child? And then there is the issue of gene editing and giving scientists the ability to alter the DNA of many organisms. These are areas fraught with significant moral and ethical questions.
“What’s powerful about the technology is it can actually cure disease,” says Alderson. “What is scary about the technology is, do we understand the full downstream effects in editing the genome? We don’t know everything about the genome and its role and implications in human health. So there is a lot of complexity here.”
A vital ally in the fight against viruses
There is also much hope. After all, genomics recently played a starring role in the development of COVID-19 vaccines in record time. The vaccines wouldn’t be here without genomics and its power to sequence the virus rapidly and correctly.
Alderson says that genomics helped scientists gain a deep understanding of the virus and gave them the ability to create the vaccine in less than a year — a previously unheard-of accomplishment. She believes the use of genomics in immunology will accelerate the advancement of treatment options in other disease areas and help address any new viruses that could emerge.
“Genomics is obviously one of the most exciting advancements in our lifetime in health care,” Alderson concludes. “I couldn’t be more excited about how far we’ve come over the last couple of decades — but also for what lies ahead.”
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