Sunday, February 28, 2010

Human microbiome and personalized medicine

In genomics, the eleventh annual meeting of Advances in Genome Biology and Technology (AGBT) was held February 24-27, 2010, and featured an eclectic mix of new research and bioinformatics tools. Genomic research was presented in a diversity of areas including human, animal, plant, and bacteria. Many research advances are coming from partnerships between one or more academic research teams together with commercial entities. The biggest buzz was around Pacific Biosciences, the 3rd generation sequencing darling, with their single-molecule real-time (SMRT) platform which is still on track for an estimated launch later this year. The platform could deliver a 30,000-fold improvement over current methods, and ultimately achieve sub-$100 whole human genome sequencing. Attendees were also wowed by 454 Roche’s bench top GS Junior System (initially announced in late 2009), making sequencing much quicker and easier, and priced at only $98,000 (a milestone for sequencing equipment which usually runs in the several hundreds of thousand dollars).

Sequencing data storage and transfer costs continue to increase with the computing industry still not cognizant of the whole new era of data processing and communications transfer that is necessary for Very Large Datasets. The NIH 1000 Genomes project, for example, is transferring many terabyte-sized files per day.

From a research standpoint, some of the most activity is in cancer genomics. A recent NIH study generated 100TB data sequencing a melanoma sample and a normal blood sample and has been refining the Most Probable Variant (MPV) Bayesian analysis method used to identify genetic mutations. Perhaps the most innovative new research activity is in RNA sequencing. Other specific findings of note are in the areas of the microbiome and genetic variation:

Human microbiome
The complex interactions between individual humans and their microbiomes could have a substantial impact on personalized medicine. In some cases of infectious disease in humans, the pathogenesis may be unknown 40-60% of the time (e.g.; respiratory disease, skin disease). Even rudimentary issues remain unsolved, for example, it may be undetectable from a simple blood draw showing staph infection whether the bacteria was on the skin surface or in the blood. Microbiome sequencing is allowing the identification of novel pathogens, and could also be useful at the human population level to assess the spread and mutation trajectory of pathogens.

Genetic variation: human and otherwise
The populations analyzed in human genome wide association studies are being expanded, with important findings for both ancestry reconstruction and medical genomics. Research was presented on African-American, Mexican-American, Bushmen, and Bantu genome studies. A deeper understanding of genetic variation is also being used to facilitate the selection of desirable qualities in agriculture and animal livestock. For example, a chicken sequencing project found 7 million unique SNPs, 5 million of which were novel, and several of which were useful in translational application.

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