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Illumina Genomics Forum Highlights – President Obama, Novel Sequencer, Bill Gates

by Max Heirich
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How does vision become reality?” Illumina CEO Francis deSouza posed this question at the beginning of the 2022 Illumina Genomics Forum hosted in San Diego, California. The first day of the four-day event saw deSouza’s introduction of the importance of genomics, followed by a panel hosted by Nobel Laureate Frances Arnold discussing the future of genomics’ role in health care. The day concluded with a conversation between former United States President Barack Obama and Sonia Vallabh, lead developer of prior prevention treatments at the Broad Institute.

Illumina is focused on the improvement of human health through the power of genomics. They are a global leader in producing DNA sequencing and array-based technologies. Across the globe, researchers make use of their cutting-edge devices in the fields of life sciences, oncology, reproductive health, agriculture and many more.

“We are so close to achieving what once seemed impossible,” uttered Illumina CEO Francis deSouza, kicking off the second day of the Illumina Genomics Forum in San Diego, California. By far and away, the most significant thing to come out of the event was deSouza’s unveiling of Illumina’s brand new NovaSeq™ X Series Sequencers. The “most significant sequencing platform ever” sees massive improvements across all key areas, with the capability of sequencing 20,000 genomes per year.

The third day of the Genomics Forum began with Bill Gates taking center stage, discussing how genomics fulfills the Gates Foundation’s ambitious goals. Gates talked about using genomics in disease tracking and elimination, preventing the next pandemic, malnutrition, and more.

Related Article: Illumina Genomics Forum Kicks Off With A Conversation With President Barack Obama

Day 1: The Potential of Genomics and A Conversation with Obama

After general introductions, Illumina CEO Francis deSouza told the story of a newborn named Fitz. Upon his birth, doctors diagnosed Fitz with Severe combined immunodeficiency (SCID). This rare disorder makes children vulnerable to all types of disease, with a life expectancy of one year. However, Fitz was born near UCSD, where his parents enrolled him in a genomic therapy clinical trial. The efforts of the researchers proved successful, and this year, a three-year-old Fitz threw the starter pitch at a Padres Game.

“The people in this room made Fitz’s treatment possible,” deSouza said.

Illumina’s CEO continued with the further victories of genomics in recent years such as the COVID-19 vaccine rollout and the creation of heat resistant yams for malnourished areas of the world.
However, deSouza highlighted the areas in which genomics hadn’t progressed, namely lack of representation across all ethnic groups and the treatment’s exclusivity. Yet, he assured all present, “We can give everyone access to their personal genome” at some point in the future. With these efforts, the top most deadly causes of death might be prevented, saving countless lives. Francis deSouza cemented this sentiment with, “If people like us in this room don’t do this, it won’t happen.”

The first day of the Illumina Genomics Forum concluded with a conversation between former United States President Barack Obama and Broad Institute’s Sonia Vallabh, Ph.D.

The conversation began with a personal anecdote of President Obama, telling the story of his mother’s late diagnosis of an aggressive disease. Underlining one of the core benefits of genomics, Obama stated,“It was clear that she was diagnosed late and, had we a better preventive system in place, she could have gotten a better treatment.”Obama also touched on the potential of genomic therapies in healthcare, saying, “One of the most promising avenues was the breakthroughs in the human genome,” and “there’s a treasure trove of information that we’re just starting to unlock.”

However, President Obama expressed frustration at the lack of maximization for the genomic data now available. He then asserted that the current healthcare system needs to pivot from a “disease care system” to a true healthcare system through the use of genomics.

Day 2: A New Sequencer on the Horizon

After announcing a slew of new products on the second day, such as the first FDA-regulated and CE-marked high throughput sequencer, the NovaSeq 6000 DX, Illumina’s CEO unveiled the most significant sequencing platform ever: the NovaSeq X Series. “Today, we give you one more product… and this changes everything,” said deSouza.
The new production-scale sequencers expand the boundaries of genomic medicine with faster, more powerful, and more sustainable sequencing. The two new sequencers, the NovaSeq X and NovaSeq X Plus. TheNovaSeq X Series sees a 90% reduction in packaging waste and weight each. In addition, there is a 50% reduction in plastic usage through the use of biodegradable materials. The power of the NovaSeq X Plus allows for the annual sequencing of 20,000 whole genomes at the cost of $200 a genome, exponentially expanding the accessibility to sequencing.

After five years of development, the NovaSeq X Series will be available in late 2023. Alex Aravanis, head of Illumina R&D, concluded the panel with, “You can redefine and revolutionize what you can do with a sequencer. I am thrilled to imagine how you can discover more and dream bigger.”

Day 3: Achieving Disease Eradication with Genomics

Bill Gates began his talk by recalling his shock upon discovering how little was known about disease causes twenty years ago when he began his foundation. He listed off how, then, the pathogenic cause for diseases like pneumonia or Malaria was unknown and what interventions might have been able to save a life. However, Gates rebounded with, “In every one of these areas, it’s the genomics revolution that’s created the platform that allows us to gain those understandings and actually come up with new interventions.”

After asking rhetorically what the report card on global health is, Gates reported that the number of child deaths under the age of five fell from ten million at the turn of the century to under five million. A part played in this massive reduction is the near eradication of the poliovirus, having a 99% caseload reduction.

Despite this good news, Gates claims we’re “not in good shape” to continue this trend. At fault for progress’ stalling, or even reversal in some cases, is the COVID-19 pandemic.

On nutrition, Gates claims that with sequencing, we’re finally understanding the microbiome’s complex interactions. He elaborated further on how the Gates foundation uses these insights for nutrition interventions. These designed foods encourage the good part of the microbiome while discouraging negative effects. “We’re seeing that that’s associated with higher growth,” said Gates. “In the case of nutrition, these interventions could be very, very cheap.”

Gates concluded his talk with an assertion that genomic sequencing needs to be done in an equitable manner. “I’m excited about how we can take [genomic] capability and use it for dramatic improvements in human health all over the world.”

Between the enthralling panels of President Obama and Bill Gates, and the groundbreaking announcement of the NovaSeq X series, the Illumina Genomics Forum was a momentous event. Doubtlessly those that attended walked away with fresh perspectives on the application of Genomics as well as inspiration to further advance the field.

For the full event video, please visit: https://youtu.be/J_9lV1KLd1Q

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