On the 24th of June, the HTANZ committee team lead by Sammy Choudary and Gabriella Laude hosted an event about genomics and next generation sequencing at Grafton Campus, University of Auckland. Five guest speakers discussed various issues and projects regarding next generation sequencing, and an audience of diverse academic and professional backgrounds attended the event. The topics covered ranged from the challenges of managing and analysing large quantities of data from genomics, to finding ways to stop the infestation of the Varroa mite in beehives.
The first speaker: Dr. Justin O’Sullivan is a researcher at the Liggins Institute at the University of Auckland. This talk discussed the utilisation of genomics and next generation sequencing in the life of consumers and government agencies. Currently there are an unprecedented amount of direct consumer access to their genomes through wearable devices and electronic health records. A common example for direct consumer access to genomic technology are companies that trace ancestry from DNA samples. Another example includes the ability to analyse one’s gut microbiome to develop a personalised nutrition plan that suits the gut microbiome.
He also cited the use of genomic technology and next generation sequencing in law enforcement agencies where small samples of DNA can be sequenced and matched against any relatives in its database. In this case, this method was used to identify the Golden State Killer. New innovations in genomic technology allows the digital construction of one’s face using a DNA sample. In conclusion, Dr. O’Sullivan demonstrated how the future of genomic technology and next generation sequencing is not limited to scientific research, but also in our everyday lives.
Dr. Dan Jones is a researcher at Plant & Food Research where he talked on recent developments and challenges that are involved in the next generation sequencing of plants and crops. Whilst Plant & Food Research do not directly deal with human genomes, they are involved in the development of new plant and food cultivars that support or enhance human health attributes. Such developments include berries that have higher anthocyanin levels.
He then discussed the challenges facing next generation sequencing at Plant & Food Research where researchers are required to assemble genomes due to the extreme size of genome such as Pinus radiata. Furthermore, the difficulty of extracting plant DNA and the large variations of genome within the same crop species, known as polyploidy, poses additional challenges to next generation sequencing for plant and crop researchers. Dr. Jones conveyed how next generation sequencing in plant and crop sequencing faces different challenges than the study of human genomics.
Dr. Pablo German is the co-founder of Pheromite, where they aim to develop a parasiticide through the genome of the Varroa mite, a pest that infests beehives. He talks on the complex steps and developmental stages required to create the right chemical compounds that can target the mite. These complex stages involve the sequencing of the Varroa mite’s genome and “mining” for transcriptome sequences which allow potential protein target to be developed on a computer. These targets are used to develop chemical compounds which eventually leads to the parasiticide To finalise, Dr. German shows how the analysis of genomic sequences can lead to the development of new products, and that the same development cycle for Pheromite’s parasiticides can be applied to humans as well.
Dr. Stefan Bohlander is a professor at the University of Auckland where he discussed the impact of genomics and next generation sequencing in myeloid leukaemia. This disease has a great impact in cancer research as Leukaemia is the first disease that had its genetic alterations found. The method for the discovery of the gene alterations that lead to Leukaemia and analysis was the precursor to next generation sequencing. He then discussed the specifics and developments through genomics that have led to improved diagnostics of Leukaemia, and the ability to isolate the gene alteration, or the proportion for malignant cells in the patient for acute myeloid leukaemia. These advancements lead to more effective and accurate treatments such as bone marrow transplant. In conclusion, Prof. Bohlander demonstrated a specific case where genomic science is applied in the field of cancer.
Prof Crist Print is a professor at the University of Auckland, and he talked on the impact of genomics and next generation sequencing in the medical and clinical field both in New Zealand and abroad. Firstly, describing current projects in New Zealand that the audience who aspire to become bioinformaticians can be part of such as genomics Aotearoa, PROSPER and NETwork. Then he discussed collaborative genomic projects overseas, such as Genomics England, where research companies are linked to genomic data from the National Health Service with the consent of patients to develop improved therapy solutions. Similarly, genomic projects were initiated in Australia which resulted in large investments in the genomic industry in the country.
Considering these events in genomics, Prof. Print cited the need for genomics in healthcare, using Dame Sally Davies’s 2016 UK CMO report where she outlined the need to add members that have knowledge and experience with genomic science to the “clinical team”. This addition to the clinical team demonstrates the evolving nature of genomic science and its involvement in healthcare. He further demonstrates the increasing role of genomic science in healthcare through the review of the NHS on the future of its health workforce for a digital future where it states that “all staff will need digital and genomic literacy”. This calls for clinicians such as GPs to embrace genomic science to enhance care and diagnosis in the field of health.
Prof. Print then discussed the challenges facing genomics such as the need to develop artificial intelligence to handle vast quantities of data generated from genomic sequencing. The talk also discussed inequities that exists in genomic science, where certain ethnicities and population groups are underrepresented in genomic databases, that genomic databases are biased towards countries that have put greater investment into genomic technology. In conclusion, Prof. Print stated the immense potential that is still yet to be unleashed in the field of healthcare and that genomic technologies can play a big role in how societies can improve their health.
Overall the five speakers have enlightened us in the field of genomic science and we can see the importance of genomics and next generation sequencing in our everyday lives, in healthcare and in research, where advancements in technology has led to innovative products, diagnosis and therapy. We also looked at the unique challenges that stand in the way for further developments in this field. Hopefully anyone who attended the event and those who read this article can use the knowledge and insights passed from the speakers to embrace the wave of genomic science into our society.
A Report by Gabriel Siman,
Writer at HTANZ.