Prospects are looking up for patients who have no explanation for their symptoms despite extensive investigations and testing. There’s a growing revolution in DNA diagnostics (see yesterday’s example) and ongoing work to bring clarity and meaning to sequencing data. Patients with similar symptoms can find each other like never before, and are increasingly empowered to lead in research and discovery.
Another small but important development was announced yesterday by the National Institutes of Health. The NIH’s Undiagnosed Diseases Network (UDN) has opened up a one-stop online portal called the UDN Gateway where patients and families can apply for access to expert team analysis and testing. (A referral letter from a provider is required.)
Some 7,500 rare disorders are known to be caused by single-gene mutations. Most of these disorders first appear at birth or in childhood, and for about half, the responsible gene has been identified. Yet, on average, families with rare disorders spend 12 years searching before getting a correct diagnosis.
Jackie Smith, a 35-year-old mother of two, searched for 32 years for the cause of her muscular weakness. Her parents knew something was wrong soon after she was born. At first, because her ankles turned in, they thought she was bow-legged.
The CLARITY Undiagnosed Challenge is heating up. Biomedical teams from seven countries are racing to interpret DNA sequences from five families affected with undiagnosed illnesses—some with gravely ill children, some already bereaved, all desperate for answers.
In July, the 26 competing teams received whole-genome and whole-exome sequence data from each patient and close family members, along with clinical notes and patient videos. Their reports, due September 21, will be judged by an independent panel based on:
the methods used to analyze and interpret the sequence data
the ability to synthesize the information
clinical usefulness, care recommendations and “next steps.”
I think my daughter Esmé is extraordinarily unique—from her tiny pudgy feet that she likes to stuff in her mouth to her beautifully lashed blue eyes and outrageously untamed hair. It’s a mom thing. I guess it is a symptom of loving another person more than life itself.
But my daughter is also unusual in a more scientific way: in her genes.
Tests for detecting Ebola in the blood can take anywhere from 12 hours to four days to yield results. But a recent study published in The Lancet reveals that a new point-of-care test can accurately determine results in mere minutes—another step toward potentially controlling the spread of Ebola.
Nira Pollock, MD, PhD, senior author of the paper and associate medical director of the Infectious Diseases Diagnostic Laboratory at Boston Children’s Hospital, along with researchers from Harvard Medical School and Partners In Health, showed that a commercially developed rapid diagnostic test (RDT), called the Corgenix ReEBOV Antigen Rapid Test kit, was as sensitive as a conventional laboratory-based method used for clinical testing during the recent outbreak in Sierra Leone.
Some great inventions were on view this week at the second annual Boston Children’s Hospital Innovators Showcase. Hosted by the hospital’s Innovation Acceleration Program and Technology & Innovation Development Office, the event featured everything from virtual reality goggles with gesture control to biomedical technologies. Below are a few new projects that caught Vector’s eye (expect to hear more about them in the coming months), a kid-friendly interview about the SimLab and list of inventions kids themselves would like to see. (Photos by Katherine Cohen except as noted)
Exome sequencing comes to the clinic (JAMA)
An approachable and thorough summary of the growing trend, describing the ways in which sequencing can help provide a diagnosis, the diagnostic yield (as high as 40 percent or more, depending on the population), how often the results have changed treatment decisions and the question of who pays.
Who Owns CRISPR? (The Scientist)
Excellent coverage of the escalating patent scramble for genome editing.
(Clockwise from top: T3, Surgical Sam, non-electric baby warmer, silk-based organ reconstruction)
Next week—on April 15—Boston-area visitors can sample inventions and technologies from around Boston Children’s Hospital, some in development and some already in use. More than 20 medical innovations will be on display in an interactive “science fair” format. We’ll be demonstrating a variety of medical devices, mobile applications, software IT innovations, wearables and bioengineering innovations. It’s free and open to the public.
Judy Wang, MS, is a program manager in the Telehealth Program at Boston Children’s Hospital.
In 2012, when I attended the South by Southwest (SXSW) Interactive conference for the first time, health tech was still an emerging field. It was the first year the world’s leading conference for emerging technology and digital creativity made any effort to include health tech programming, and the first time its Accelerator pitch event included a category for health tech startups.
Only three years later, SXSW Interactive (March 13–17, 2015) has grown to include almost 50 events related to health and medical technologies. Martine Rothblatt, CEO of the biotech company United Therapeutics, gave a keynote titled “AI, Immortality and the Future of Selves” that was both inspiring and provocative. She spoke to a world in which our 24/7 selves are increasingly being captured digitally. Audience questions captured by Twitter pondered the ethical implications of what Rothblatt called “mind clones”: future mechanical beings digitally programmed with our mannerisms, habits and memories.
But like nature, business abhors a vacuum, and longs to fill it. Many companies and institutions have already jumped into the LDT ring, offering up genomic or pharmacologic services that they say would help guide patients’ and doctors’ treatment decisions and improve outcomes. Especially for patients with cancer.
How solid is the science behind these claims? And do vendors do a good job disclosing the strengths and weaknesses of personalized medicine? Those questions form the core of a study published this week in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute.