CRISPR Base Editors: An Upgrade for Treatment of Genetic Disease

The CRISPR(Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats)-Cas9(CRISPR-associated system 9) technology, often touted as one of the greatest recent inventions to drive progress in biotechnology, is currently being challenged and viewed more critically as a recent flurry of articles is casting doubt on the overall safety of this rising technology which up to now has mostly seen positive press.

CRISPR gene editing recent news and controversies

CRISPR, also often referred to as CRISPR/Cas9, is a technically and scientifically fascinating biological system that promises to yield a revolution in treatment of genetic diseases. CRISPR also offers a basis for powerful and flexible tools for furthering our understanding of eukaryotic gene expression. The underlying biology – though rather obscure just a decade ago – is nowadays an enormously active area of research in both basic science and medical/technical applications.

CRISPR

CRISPR has such a promise that a cautionary article about issues with off-target genetic mutations in some CRISPR applications (Kosicki et al., 2018), also recently presented in the Wall Street Journal (WSJ) by Mohan and Marcus (2018) shook the research community. Both the study in question and the industry effects that the WSJ article touch upon are relevant when using the form of technology called CRISPR/Cas9 (Cas9 DNA nuclease paired with its targeting CRISPR RNA(s)). However, there are more advanced and specialized versions of CRISPR technology that may avoid those challenges, in this case referring to the ‘base editor’ versions of derived Cas9 (Komor et al., 2016, Nishida et al., 2016). More about the details of both will be discussed later in this post.

Image credit:  Cancer Research UK.

Recent “ruling by the European Court of Justice that gene editing equals genetic engineering”

The concerns over use of CRISPR-Cas9 in the context of therapeutic development have been further amplified with a recent ruling by the European Court of Justice that Continue reading

Nebula Genomics’ Goal Is To Make The Value of Genome Sequencing a Reality

This month’s “Company Spotlight” provides a closer look at Nebula Genomics, a human genome sequencing and health big data company on a mission to usher in the era of genomic sequencing by building a large and trusted genomic and health data marketplace for consumers, researchers and the medical community.

Kamal Obbad, CEO and cofounder of Nebula Genomics discussed Nebula Genomics’ marketplace, the need their platform is addressing, and where the future of genomics data sharing and access will lead to.

Nebula Genomics is using blockchain to ensure that consumers maintain control of their data and are compensated for its use, so that the Nebula marketplace will aggregate a critical mass of rich genetic information that researchers can analyze in order to accelerate drug development, streamline clinical trials, and usher in the era of truly personalized medicine. The eight-person company is headquartered in San Francisco, CA, and was founded in 2017 by Harvard Genomics pioneer George Church, along with Harvard researchers Dennis Grishin and Kamal Obbad. Nebula Genomics has recently secured $4.3M in funding from leading venture capital firms including Khosla Ventures, Mayfield and Arch Ventures. The funds will support the company’s mission to usher in the era of personal genome sequencing by creating a trusted, secure, and decentralized marketplace for genomic data. Nebula has also forged a partnership with Veritas Genetics, the leading whole genome sequencing and interpretation company, that will connect the Nebula marketplace to Veritas’ Arvados open-source software platform.

The following summarizes questions and answers from my dialogue with Kamal Obbad.

EB: Tell us more about Nebula Genomics – What scientific and business needs are you trying to address and what products/services do you offer? Blockchain is a critical component of Nebula Genomics – can you explain exactly how you apply this technology to your services?

Kamal Obbad: One of the main issues researchers and the pharma industry are facing today is access to large scale genomics data. The data as it exists today is very fragmented. It is generated in many different labs, by both nonprofit and for-profit Continue reading

Bio-IT World Conference 2018 – Data Science Has Replaced Bioinformatics

This year’s conference kicked off with an interesting Data Science panel that included Tanya Cashorali (TCB Analytics), Jerald Schindler (Alkermes), John Reynders (Alexion Pharmaceuticals), and Lihua Yu (H3 Biomedicine). Without a doubt, data science is important and involves much more than big data, including the entire workflow of data creation, to insight generation, and decision-making. One key message that came across is that not all data is big data, and that we need improvements in data collection and infrastructure support for data analysis and management. Other key take-home messages: breaking down data silos, educating about responsibility, being responsible to not act independently on data, creating an environment that motivates everybody within a team to share, not rewarding bad data behavior, and being insensitive to data sharing to get more out in return. The big issue here is the culture. If the culture rewards Continue reading

ACMG 2018 – “There is Still So Much We Have to Learn”

This year’s ACMG conference in Charlotte, North Carolina, included a very well received first installment of TED-style talks which reflected on the evolution and impact of healthcare. All three talks delivered by Kaylene Ready (Director of Inherited Cancer and a Genetics Counselor, Counsyl), Christian Schaaf (Professor Clinical Genomics, University of Cologne), and Wendy Chung (Associate Professor of Pediatrics, Columbia University Irving Medical Center) were inspirational, and were considered a great addition to ACMG 2018. Takeaways and key messages included: “treat every patient like patient No. 1, always keeping them at the center of the work, and us working as mediators rather than as a barrier”. Image credit: @DeniseCalvert13

Some statistical numbers were eye-opening and challenging as it comes as no surprise that the community currently lacks genetic counselors (GCs), with fewer than 4,000 GCs and 2,000s medical geneticists in the US which translates to one geneticist per ~60,000 people. With new genetic tests generated every day, GCs need to take on the role of mediators. New operational solutions were discussed to address this shortcoming, and as such Kaylene Ready proposed the exploration of chatbots as alternatives to GC service delivery. While certainly an interesting suggestion, we will have to see whether the field with its customers (i.e. patients) is ready to discuss challenging genetics findings with a computer. As a result, it was suggested to decouple Continue reading

Genohm Aims to Hit the Sweet Spot With a Customizable SLIMS + ELN Solution for Lab Information Management

For this month’s “Company Spotlight” blog series we are reviewing Genohm with an interview with Nick Beckloff, Director of US Operations at Genohm. Genohm is a 50-person company headquartered in Lausanne, Switzerland. I took this opportunity to learn more about Genohm, and SLIMS (Sample Laboratory Information Management System), their sample and data management software offering intended to address today’s challenges of managing the sample and data throughput in clinical, NGS, and other types of labs.

The following summarizes questions and answers from my dialogue with Nick Beckloff.

EB: Tell us more about Genohm – what need are you trying to address and what products/services do you offer?

NB:  Genohm’s mission is to reduce the complexity of life in the lab by offering a software package that distills the important aspects of a LIMS while providing functionality across many relevant spectra. We offer a flexible and customizable solution Continue reading

Genomenon’s Automated Genomic Search Engine Mastermind Illuminates Current Trends in Genomic Literature – A Look at the Top Cited Variants Across the Scientific Literature

For this month’s “Company Spotlight” blog series we are taking a deeper look at Mastermind, an automated genomic search engine created by Genomenon, a University of Michigan spin-off. Mastermind, a comprehensive database of genomic disease-to-gene-to-variant associations, supports its users to search through millions of full text articles from the primary medical literature to identify variants of interest, prioritize them, and retrieve relevant articles for disease-gene-variant combinations. Rather than providing a regular Q&A with a company representative, we thought of illustrating the richness of Mastermind’s content and the associated functionalities via the retrieval of interesting citation data, as provided by Mark Kiel (CSO and co-Founder at Genomenon) and Lauren Chunn (Data Processing Intern at Genomenon). Specifically, the Genomenon team supplied a current trends analysis of widely cited variants within the genomic literature. Through this process they are able to paint a picture of the changing landscape of genomic research and medicine, from variants that have remained a common feature for decades to newly emerging variants over the last few years.

Genomenon is a 15 person company, headquartered in Ann Arbor, Michigan, and founded in 2014. To date, Genomenon has received $4.5M in funding (Angel, Venture investment and NIH SBIR Fast Track Grant), and has grown to become an independent company.

Mastermind is a genomic search engine comprising an index of titles, abstracts, and full text including figures and tables of 5.7 million prioritized primary articles. New Continue reading

Diploid Tackles the Challenges of Rare Disease Diagnostics

enlightenbio is excited to introduce our new “Company Spotlight” blog series where we will review some of the exciting work that is currently ongoing in up- and-coming companies. Moving forward we plan on reviewing and profiling some of these companies and their products on a regular basis.

At ASHG, I had a chance to meet with Peter Schols, CEO of Diploid, a small seven person company located in Leuven, Belgium. I took this opportunity to learn more about Diploid, and Moon, the software the company has built, and its intended application to help diagnose rare disease.

The following summarizes questions and answers from my dialogue with Peter Schols.

EB: Tell us more about Diploid – what need are you trying to address and what services do you offer?

PS: Diploid is a privately funded, rare disease diagnostics company founded in 2014. Diploid started with offering an interpretation service, helping our customers analyze rare disease sequence data. Customers send us NGS data of a patient together with a description of the phenotype, and we deliver a report listing the most likely candidate variants. We focus exclusively on rare disease testing and currently support the Continue reading

AHSG 2017 Roundup – A Shout Out to the Women in Science

This year’s ASHG conference in Orlando was kicked off with an inspiring plenary talk by the ASHG President Dr. Nancy Cox, celebrating diversity, inviting refugees to join the human genetics research mission, and longing for the day when contributions by female scientists will be as valued and as acknowledged as those of men. She concluded with highlighting contributions of women to genetics and science thus far, and by sharing her desire that the future will have a more positive outlook in this regard.

This powerful opening talk was followed by a presentation by Bill Gates and a conversation between Bill Gates and Dr. Francis Collins on global health and genomics. Gates highlighted different projects the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation had been Continue reading