Providence genome sequencing holds huge promise and challenges

Providence Health & Services’ leaders say its new initiative for whole genome sequencing in cancer patients could lead to major breakthroughs in treatment.

“It’s a great thing for what we can do for patients,” said Dr. Walter Urba, research director at Providence Cancer Center.

The beauty of the new DNA mapping technology that Providence will soon have access to, through Dr. Patrick Soon-Shiong, is that it can locate difficult-to-find mutations. It’s also very fast and relatively affordable — it can sequence a human genome for $1,000.

“It allows you to think about sequencing large numbers of tumors in a time and at a cost heretofore not possible,” Urba said. “Our approach to cancer therapy has changed over time, and knowledge of what’s going on inside an individual’s tumor is key to the selection of the therapy.”

Soon-Shiong, described by Forbes as the world’s richest doctor, is purchasing a cluster of DNA sequencers, the Illumina HiSeq X10, which consists of 10 machines. Soon-Shiong was just appointed as Providence’s new global director for cancer services and bioinformatics.

“What the relationship does is it will provide information on all patients that touch the Providence Health System,” Urba said.

Providence will become the first health system to use the machines for clinical purposes, as opposed to just research. A similar machine at Providence Portland will be tied to a collection of faster models primarily located in Southern California, where Soon-Shiong’s company, NantHealth, is based.

“It allows you to look at enormous amounts of data and look at what’s gone wrong with a tumor,” Urba said. “If you have 10 that are as fast as those in California, you can start learning about whole populations. It’s a very powerful tool.”

Dr. Tomasz Beer, deputy director of Oregon Health & Science University’s Knight Cancer Institute, will be watching Providence’s work closely. OHSU also does genetic sequencing in cancer patients.

“It’s an exciting announcement, good for patients and aligned with the general vision of personalized medicine we’ve been enthusiastic about for a long time,” Beer said.

Such cutting-edge technology raises other challenges, however — mainly, in the interpretation of the data.

“One of the things worth noting is the biggest challenge in the field is understanding what the complex genetic data gained from each patient is trying to tell us,” Beer said. “It’s an enormous amount of data that’s both likely to have a significant impact on health care and a whole new frontier of scientific challenges.”

Elizabeth Hayes
Staff Reporter- Portland Business Journal


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