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Assessing the State of the Genomic Revolution

Posted on May 29th, 2017 by in Pharma R&D


A few weeks ago, a number of experts in the field of genomics gathered in downtown Manhattan for Sequencing the Genome: Examining Modern Medicine, an event hosted by The Atlantic magazine. Featuring five fascinating panels over the course of one morning, this mini-conference packed a tremendous amount of knowledge into a short period, leaving the audience (which included everyone from business leaders and doctors to patients and interested novices) with much to think about.

The program kicked off with Claire Pomeroy, President and CEO of the Albert and Mary Lasker Foundation, sharing her wisdom on the current state of research. Noting that polls show that “support for scientific research is bi-partisan,” she emphasized the importance of investing in medical research and innovation. Demonstrating an infectious optimism in science’s ability to take on many of society’s problems, Pomeroy spoke of taking a holistic approach. That includes considering the ethical, legal and social implications of scientific advancement, but also refers even to budgeting. For instance, the money invested in medically treating mental illness can have an impact on the criminal justice system if it means sending fewer people to prison. In other words, funding medical research is about much more than physical health – it reaches many other aspects of our lives too.

The Atlantic’s Senior Editor, James Hamblin, moderated the next panel, “The Dawn of the Genomic Era,” with Edward Abrahams of Personalized Medicine Coalition, Karen Nelson of J. Craig Venter Institute and Aris Baras of Regeneron Pharmaceuticals & Regeneron Genetics Center. Regeneron has built a huge genetics database and is using its research to better understand how genetic factors cause or influence human disease. Nelson heads her organization’s microbiome program, which is gathering data and working to correlate the microbiome with the genome. And Abrahams’ field, personalized medicine, is a hot topic that is evolving by the day. All acknowledged that the scientific community is still in the early stages with genomics, and while consumers are understandably anxious for medicines and cures, much of genomic research right now is really about learning.

As Celgene’s Executive Chairman, Robert Hugin, pointed out in a subsequent talk on the business of genomics, much of the recent progress has been to redefine and understand diseases better, including breaking the populations down. The exciting part of all this is that it will eventually (and in some cases already is) enabling the creation of more tailored medicines that may only work for a smaller number of people, but are far more effective. This could mean the end of the problematic one-size-fits-all model that has been standard for so long. Suggesting that the idea is to pay for value rather than volume, Abrahams said, “Imagine the money you can save by not giving medicines to people for whom they don’t work.”

Unlocking the secrets of the genome not only has major implications for treating disease, but also for vaccine development. On another panel, Mark Feinberg of the International AIDS Vaccine Initiative asserted that it will take a vaccine to truly end AIDS, and that “there would be no path forward without the insights from genomics.” Meanwhile fellow panelist Ripley Ballou, VP of GSK Vaccines, said that what keeps him up at night is the threat that they don’t know about. Being as prepared as possible is key, so that they can scale up vaccine development quickly when epidemics arise. That means investment in global health and scientific research is crucial, as are all manner of collaborative relationships.

The program concluded with a panel on the challenges and opportunities ahead, highlighted by a lively discussion on consumer DNA testing from websites like 23andMe and Ting Wu of the Personal Genetics Education Project felt these services might drive interest by making genomics more accessible to consumers. Arthur Caplan, a bioethics professor at NYU, expressed reservations, wondering exactly how they are handling the data they are collecting. Columbia professor and psychiatrist Paul Appelbaum proposed that the future model will likely involve consultation with an expert and integration with other aspects of patient health, so that consumers will ultimately receive more genuine and useful insight from the process.

“Sequencing the Genome” offered an excellent opportunity to see how people in academia, industry and government are approaching the genomic revolution and to get a window into areas where notable advances are taking place. But Dr. Appelbaum may have summed up the morning’s discussions best when he advised keeping things in perspective and remembering that genomic medicine is just one more tool in the toolkit. It won’t be the solution to all of our problems, but its power and promise is undeniable.

Learn more about the panelists and see video from the event here.


All opinions shared in this post are the author’s own.

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