Tales from BIO: Tumor genomes and personalized medicine

BIO President and CEO Jim Greenwood interviews Sir Richard Branson during the BIO 2014 keynote luncheon.

In an effort to be a real member of the media, here is the best I could come up with from Day 1 of the BIO International Convention in San Diego.

Three years ago, Philadelphia’s own Fox Chase Cancer Center teamed up with Life Technologies to map tumor genomes in cancer patients, with the goal to build a database of patients based on their tumor genome plus treatments and patient outcomes. I met on the floor with one of the Life Technologies (now part of Thermo Fisher Scientific) who couldn’t really answer my attempts at investigative journalism.

The initial cost cited for the project was $7,000, to get your genome completed within a couple of weeks.  It was stated another biotech, Illumina, has reduced the genomic sequencing to $1,000 in three days’ turnaround time, although their webpage shows their pricing and turnaround time more in line with Life Technologies.  Either way, it is clear that there is a market for technology that was non-existent when most of today’s doctors were in medical school.

What does that mean?  Well, here’s what (I think) I know… The landscape is slowly changing towards personalized medicine and broader data analysis (which I saw last week at DIA). Costs are coming down to a level somewhat affordable to the average American. Plus, insurance companies are now faced with the question of coverage for such an expensive test (a topic that will need much more research if I can ever locate someone from these companies who is more than just an industry pitchman).

Presentations at the convention highlighted the emerging science trends.  Among those mentioned included:

  • Genomes – Did you know it took 13 years and $3 billion to map the human genome?  Makes what the companies above are now doing seem pretty amazing by comparison.
  • Genome editing – a process that replaces or removes DNA from a genome; that is the best I can give you without regurgitating a Google search.  Sounded way scientific and way over my head.
  • Stratified medicine – now this one I know, sort of; Jamie talked about it at the DIA keynote.  Similar to the above ideas, it involves predicting treatment effectiveness based on one or more traits of a person’s genetic make-up.  It’s the stepping stone towards much more advanced personalized medicine. Current examples for melanoma patients would include the BRAF and MEK inhibitors (i.e. Zelboraf or Tafinlar, and Mekinist).
  • The microbiome – yea, I had to Google this one a bit.  The basics I got; we have ten times more bacteria cells in our body than we do human cells, which should freak out every germaphobe alive.  Understanding the roles this bacteria plays can help better treat a host of disease.  It’s a pretty fascinating subject that is relevant to anyone who has ever heard the term “gut health” before and dismissed it as something organic flag-wavers toss out there without scientific backing.  Not only is it real science, there is (or seems to be) a lot of undiscovered or unproven theories, making it another frontier for a comprehensive medical treatment plan.

Sir Richard Branson was the keynote speaker on Tuesday, but the line to get in was ridiculously long and quickly spilled into an ancillary room. For some asinine reason, His Excellency (or whatever you call knighted British guys) did not allow the broadcast into the press room; luckily, this is the kind of stuff real reporters cover, so I will give the second-hand account later. More from BIO 2014 coming soon.

T.J. Sharpe shares his fight against Stage 4 Melanoma in the Patient #1 blog. Read more »