2022-09-29| Special

Illumina Genomics Forum Kicks Off With A Conversation With President Barack Obama

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.

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The Potential of Genomics

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. For example, the COVID-19 pandemic’s mRNA vaccine rollout was the historic first-time medical professionals met a global issue with a scaled response. Francis deSouza also touched on the areas outside of medical applications where genomics can have a positive effect. One example was Dr. Ranjana Bhattacharjee’s genomic creation of heat-resilient yams for the solution to food shortages throughout 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.”

Genomics Across the Health Ecosystem

Following deSouza’s introduction of the Illumina Genomics Forum, Nobel Laureate Frances Arnold hosted a panel discussing the application of genomics. Panel members included Amy Compton-Phillips, formally with Providence, CEO of Veritas Intercontinental Javier de Echevarria, CSO of Genome Canada Catalina Lopez-Correa, director of Scripps Research Translational Institute Eric Topol, and CMO of Quest Diagnostics Jay Wohlgemuth.

The panel kicked off with Arnold asking members what they are most excited about in genomics. Answers varied from Topol’s enthusiasm for Rady Genomics’ sequencing research to Lopez-Correa’s excitement over genomics’ role in the COVID-19 pandemic. However, while Wohlgemuth asserted “it’s very clear that the hard science has been done,” Compton-Phillips disagreed, citing a lack of data on African American genomes.

The panel’s next topic centered on how to accelerate the progress of genomics. Panel members mostly agreed that the sharing of data is vital for progress and more sequencing is required. However, members acknowledged patient’s want for their data privacy. As a result, they talked about how to gain the trust of patients. The chief method discussed was the demonstration of the value of the data genomics holds to both patients and healthcare providers. Through showing people that doctors can detect diseases like cancer early and create a targeted therapy, this would drive more people to get their genome sequenced, thus creating a greater pool to draw from.  

A Conversation with President Obama

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. With this year marking the twelfth anniversary of the Affordable Care Act (ACA), President Obama discussed the tireless efforts it took to pass the bill.

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.” 

“It was a headache,” President Obama said on the passing of the ACA, “It’s hard to get anything done when everyone thinks what they have is okay.” President Obama compared the numerous phone calls he made in order to gain support for the bill as beating on a door. Obama elaborated on the slim majority they had in support of the bill and the freshman congress people who voted for the ACA despite it sealing their loss of a reelection.  The former president echoed their sentiment on their career’s sacrifice, saying “There are some things that are more important than winning an election.” 

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.

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