In comparison to other medicinal practices, next-generation sequencing is in its relative infancy. Manual DNA sequencing methods only first appeared in the 1970s, and the shift to more automated methods finally allowed the first whole genome to be sequenced in 2003.
However, the practice has progressed rapidly in a very short period of time.
Today, genomic analytics is becoming more common and is transforming the landscape of the biotech, pharmaceutical, and life sciences fields. Next-generation sequencing (NGS) is making it possible for human genomes to be profiled in record time and with great granularity, helping researchers pinpoint and analyze more types of genetic abnormalities than they would be able to with conventional DNA sequencing technologies.
It’s an exciting time for the healthcare industry as the field of genomics undergoes a period of hyper-innovation. Raju Kucherlapati, a genetics professor at Harvard Medical School’s Department of Genetics, summed it up by saying, “All of us in genetics think we’re going through a golden age.” He went on to explain that the accumulation of knowledge is mounting at an “ever increasing pace.”
With this increase in knowledge comes a tidal wave of data. Genomic data is growing so quickly that scientists are predicting that this data will soon take the lead as the largest data category in the world, eventually creating more digital information than astronomy, particle physics and even popular Internet sites like YouTube.
Here are a few real-life examples of how NGS is helping medical professionals drive a healthcare revolution:
- Four-year-old Nicholas Volker was dying from an unknown ailment that left his intestine dangerously inflamed. In a desperate effort to save his life, Volker’s doctors sequenced his DNA as a last-ditch effort to uncover the underlying gene mutations leading to his condition. After identifying two changes in Volker’s DNA, they tried a bone marrow transplant of cells taken from umbilical cord blood. Volker went on to make a full recovery and is now living a normal life.
- Researchers at Children’s Mercy Hospital in Kansas City say that for 100 families with children affected by either unknown disorders or brain abnormalities, genome screening helped 45 percent receive a new diagnosis, and guided 55 percent to a different treatment for their child’s disorder. Of the 100 families, 85 had been visiting various doctors in search of a diagnosis for an average of six and a half years.
- A next-generation genome-sequencing test developed at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center allows doctors to quickly find out whether a patient’s cancer tumor carries clinically useful mutations, including aberrations that make cancers vulnerable to particular drugs. This helps them match individual patients with available therapies or clinical trials that are most likely to benefit them.
Next-generation sequencing methods are empowering doctors and researchers to improve their ability to treat diseases, predict and prevent diseases before they occur, and personalize treatments to specific patient profiles. However, the continued ramp-up of NGS utilization and the explosive growth of genomic data is driving a need for a commensurate increase in computational capacity. High performance computing (HPC) solutions that are specifically designed for the needs of NGS are now necessary in order to keep pace with the expected number of genomes per day to be sequenced and analyzed.
As genomic data continues to mount, the field will need to adopt new computational tools and approaches in order to extract insight from these increasingly large and complex datasets. Luckily, there are HPC life sciences systems available now that are addressing the requirements of research institutions performing sequencing and assembly on a daily basis, and delivering unmatched levels of performance, scalability, and affordability.
To learn more about how next-gen sequencing is revolutionizing the healthcare industry, please follow me on Twitter at @Bill_Mannel.