When the Human Genome Project launched in 1990, it was a scientific undertaking unlike anything the world had seen. Building a complete profile of our genetic makeup took billions of dollars, collaboration between scientists across the globe and more than two decades to complete.
Today, Dr. Jay Shendure could do almost the same project in his lab on the University of Washington campus. The work might take a few days and would cost just a few thousand dollars.
That dramatic advancement in the tech behind genetic sequencing is the foundation of precision medicine, a field that looks into the code of our DNA to help keep people healthy. One day, our genes could tell us who will get sick years before they see any symptoms, or what custom-made drugs each cancer patient should take to kill their disease.
Wednesday, three research centers in Seattle launched a new organization dedicated to making that future a reality: The Brotman Baty Institute for Precision Medicine.
The institute unites people and resources from UW Medicine, Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center and Seattle Children’s to develop a new understanding of precision medicine. It includes engineers, researchers, clinicians and technology that all play a part in understanding genes and using them to further health.
The Institute, which is virtual for the time being, was made possible by $50 million in funding from Costco co-founder Jeff Brotman, his wife Susan and close friends and business partners Pam and Dan Baty. Jeff Brotman was a driving force behind the institute’s formation but passed away in August before he could see the project become a reality.
Shendure, a longtime leader in genome technology and the head of the institute, told GeekWire the organization’s goal is as simple as it is complicated: To further our understanding of genetics and use that knowledge to make people healthier.
While precision medicine is still in its early days, it’s tackling a problem as old as medicine itself.
“We use the same medicines to treat everyone who has a certain disease,” Shendure explained, “but we know that as individuals we’re different. We’re very similar, but we’re different. Those differences are part of why I might be at greater risk of diabetes and you might be at greater risk of something else.”
Those differences also mean some people respond really well to a certain medicine, but other people don’t respond at all.
“Part of what we’re trying to understand now — and what this new field is about — is trying to figure out why a particular medicine will work on one person with a disease but not work on another person with the disease,” Shendure said. “Part of it is also trying to understand why the differences between individuals — in terms of their DNA, their genome — actually make one of those people more likely to get a particular disease than another person.”
That knowledge could help doctors decide on treatment for patients, prevent people from getting sick in the first place and even lead to new medicines for patients who don’t respond to existing ones.
The work also has strong ties to Seattle — several of the leaders of the Human Genome Project work in the city and it is also home to world-leading medical research and technological innovation.
“Part of the inception here was the recognition by the leaders of all three institutions as well as the donors about how much expertise is represented in and around this area,” Shendure said. “Collectively, we’re really a leading force, nationally and internationally, in this area.”
The institute joins several other organizations focused on precision medicine around the U.S., including the Institute for Precision Medicine in Pittsburgh and the Englander Institute in New York.
It’s important to say that all of this science is still in very early stages. While precision medicine holds great promise, there’s a lot of work between where we stand today and what we could do one day.
“Some of these things already are happening, and part of the goal is to accelerate the rate at which these things are happening in Seattle,” Shendure said. One area that’s already feeling the impact of precision medicine is cancer care.
Dr. Pete Nelson, a researcher at Fred Hutch and a collaborator with the new institute, studies prostate cancer. He told GeekWire that the field is changing dramatically because of new genome technologies.
“We’re seeing that biology and medicine is becoming an information science,” he said. After all, when you get down to it, our DNA is just a very complex code.
Nelson has spent the past few years working with other researchers on identifying subtypes of prostate cancer. During the research, they made a surprising discovery: Twelve percent of the men in their study had inherited a predisposition to prostate cancer.
“This was entirely unexpected,” Nelson told GeekWire, partly because those men didn’t have any other sign that their cancer could have been inherited. In another surprise revelation, it turns out the mutated genes “were the exact same ones that had been shown to associate with breast and ovarian cancer.”
That discovery couldn’t have been made without the men’s genomes, and it was an important puzzle piece to helping them and their families stay healthy.
“It simultaneously did two things — first, it told us what type of treatment the men we were studying should get, and secondly they sort of acted as a lighthouse or a beacon for their family,” Nelson said. “By identifying these men, we immediately knew that half of their siblings and half of their children would have also inherited that same predisposition.”
That kind of insight is what the Precision Medicine Institute is hoping to bring about, by letting researchers and technologists in Seattle collaborate across bureaucratic lines. That means researchers at different institutions can work together on studies, but also that technologists can work hand-in-hand with doctors to create new advances in the field.
“It’s pretty clear that tech drives much of what we can do in medicine,” Nelson said. For example, Nelson may have a clinical problem but not the tool he needs to solve it.
“You might then tell your colleagues that may be in bioengineering or computer science or another discipline. They come up with a creative solution,” he said, “and then we bring it back and actually apply it in a real patient-directed fashion.”
Nelson said the new institute will help develop those kinds of tools by letting innovators work side-by-side. It’s another sign of what he says is an inevitable move towards technology in the medical sciences.