Technology continues to turn the healthcare sector on its head with new innovations devices used in the privacy of one’s home can accurately confirm disease. New techniques in genetic analysis can also accurately predict the risk of alcohol cirrhosis or Alzheimer’s.
Dr. Bradley Schaefer, professor of genetics and pediatrics with the University of Arkansas for Medical Scienes and Arkansas Children’s Northwest, said environment plays a big role in overall health outcomes, but he believes genetics is the Holy Grail for understanding why some people who don’t smoke get lung cancer and vice versa.
“Genetics are the whole pie. While environmental exposure is critical, it’s more about how your gene makeup relates to the environment,” Shaffer said during a Monday (Oct. 22) morning keynote speech at the Greater Bentonville Chamber MedTech Conference in Rogers.
Schaefer was one of two dozen speakers at the MedTech mini conference ahead of Tuesday’s Northwest Arkansas Technology Summit. He recently relocated to Northwest Arkansas to work with Arkansas Children’s Northwest to study genetics that impact childhood diseases and illnesses.
He said family history remains one of the most important tools that exists for accurately and quickly diagnosing disease and risks for diseases. The sequencing of the human Genome took 13 years to complete and cost $3 billion. But it’s now opening up a host of opportunities in healthcare, and helping to launch new drug treatments and protocol for cancer which claims one life every second of every day.
Schaefer said mapping a person’s genetic makeup can have radical implications, especially in critically ill children. He said by using genetic mapping doctors can accurately identify what’s behind critical illnesses in babies clinging to life in intensive care. The test costs $7,600 and parents can get a diagnosis in 26 hours on average. He said traditional testing could take two or three weeks and in some cases the babies die before the illness is accurately diagnosed. The costs of many traditional tests and intensive care are far greater.
Schaefer said there is also groundbreaking research underway on how certain genes can impact behaviors such as food cravings, political leanings, thrill seeking and even infidelity. He said studying genetics can have just as big of an impact in the social and behavioral sciences as the biomedical sciences.
“Personalized medicine is using genetics to tailor treatment and drug protocol. Pharmacogenetics is the right drug for the right person in the right doses,” he said. “So many times treating mental illness a shot in the dark, but with the genetic testing we can know what drugs will likely work and those which won’t and we don’t have to put the patient through lots of trial and error.”
Jia Xu, who works in personalized medicine at IBM Watson Health, said personalized medicine is helping people live longer, and have quality lives, even after a dismal diagnosis such as metastatic cancer. Xu said for years doctors used standard chemotherapy protocol to treat cancer based the size of the tumor. But since the mapping of the genome physicians have discovered the benefits of more targeted, personalized treatment by boosting the patient’s immune system if they have certain sets of DNA that have proven resistant to chemotherapy.
“Only 20% of cancer patients truly benefit from chemotherapy and there can be harsh side effects, but 80% of those who are candidates for immunotherapy benefit from that type of treatment protocol with very few negative side effects,” Xu said in her closing keynote at Monday’s conference.
Personalized medicine that maps genetic code is far from mainstream, but Xu said earlier this year Medicare agreed to cover the costs of cancer gene tests that have been approved by the Food and Drug Administration. Xu said this has the potential for genetic testing coverage to become more common as private insurers often follow the federal government’s moves in healthcare. She said that will likely mean more insurance companies will begin offering genetic testing for patients with advanced cancers. Xu said it’s a big step toward personalized medicine for thousands who face a dismal cancer prognosis.
Kevin Clark, CEO of Now Diagnostics in Springdale, spoke about developments in testing which his company is actively working. He said the company has secured 15 patents and has 23 other provisional patents for its technology that can accurately test for pregnancy within 48 hours after egg implantation. The test, branded “First to Know,” is a do-it-yourself kit that can be done in private and is just as effective at detecting early pregnancy as the blood test given at a doctor’s office. The test cartridge is used to prick the user’s finger and within 10 minutes the results are know with 99% accuracy.
Clark said the product recently went on the market in Italy and is in the last round of testing and scrutiny from the FDA. He said the cost is $19.99 and in Italy the product garnered 6% of the market in the first three months of sales. Other urine-based tests cost around $12.99.
The company is also working on similar test for detecting sexual viruses such as HIV, herpes and chlamydia that offer consumers the ability to do the test in the privacy of their home and get reliable results on par with tests administered by physicians. He said a test for strep is also in the works and can have implications in children who many times present false positives with standard swab tests. He said Now Diagnostics has developed its own swab test which has promising results. He said there is an upcoming clinical trial for the test in Northwest Arkansas as well as in a children’s hospital in Toronto.
He said Now Diagnostics’ goal is to drive information closer to the caregiver and the consumer with these at-home tests. Within five years he expects the company to have $5 billion in sales with dozens of biomarkers that can be tested in the fluid part of the blood. He said the basic technology that test for pregnancy can be used for detecting virus, proteins, inflammation and hormones.
Xu said personalized medicine is proving in many cases to allow longer lives for those with certain types of cancer. She said once the mapping is complete, it’s easier for patients to get accepted into clinical trials for the hundreds of drugs being tested. The genetic testing allows doctors a roadmap to follow by pointing out relevant signs and hazards along the way.
Tony Buettner, who studies “Blue Zones,” was also a keynote speaker at the event. Blue Zones are geographic areas on the planet where people live the longest. Buettner said there are five true Blue Zones in the world and the commonalities of those areas include mobile lifestyles, mostly plant-based diets, close network of friends and some stress reliever which is part of the daily routine.
He said in Sardinia, Italy, it’s perfectly normal to see a 103-year-old man chopping wood or riding a bike to work. In Sardinia men live 10 years longer on average than in the U.S. He said there are four centenarians for every 6,000 births. In the U.S. that number is 1 per 6,000 births. In Okinawa, Japan, the oldest women live 12 years longer than in the U.S. and there are five times the number centenarians with one-fifth the number of cancer and coronary disease cases.
While Buettner said those results are not typical, there are clearly health benefits from living in Blue Zone areas of the world. He works with cities around the world who want to become a place where people live longer, healthier lives. He cited Redondo Beach, Calif., and Albert Lea, Minn., as two of 48 communities working with his company to reach Blue Zone status. He said there are a few pockets in the U.S. that have Blue Zone longevity and there are opportunities for many others to get there.
Xu said as Americans age the risk for cancer increases because of the way the disease originates as mutation of cell replication which occur thousands of times a day. She said the gene replica mutations build up as a person ages. Ironically, in the Blue Zone areas where there are plant-based diets, tight social networks, continued work throughout one’s life and actives to deal with stress, there is also far less risk for cancers even among centenarians.