Data, devices and DNA: Driving a healthier future
Scientists are gathering immense databases exploring how our genes influence our health. And even more data is coming from wearable devices and app-enabled smartphones.
Sooner than we may expect, gene science, big data and wearable technologies will converge to forever change the way we prevent, predict, diagnose and treat diseases.
“I think we're going to see an explosion of all kinds of data that will help manage people's health and predict medicines they should use at a level that's never been done before,” says Michael Snyder, PhD, Professor and Chair of Genetics and Director of the Stanford Center for Genomics and Personalized Medicine.
All of these innovations track back to the mapping of the human genome, which paved the way for a wider understanding of other “omes” in the body that affect our health. These include the “proteome” of our proteins, the “metabolomes” of our metabolites and the “microbiome” of microbes within our bodies (like bacteria in the gut and on the skin), Snyder says.
These “omes” represent a complex interplay of molecules numbering in the billions. It takes big data technology — powerful computers correlating information from massive databases — to unmask the mysteries of these “omic” interactions.
An in-person encounter with the promise of data and genomics
Snyder runs a laboratory at Stanford that explores the frontiers of genomic science. He leads a diverse cast of scientists and study subjects — one of whom is himself. More than six years ago, the lab sequenced his DNA and started tracking his health.
Since then, they’ve taken over 200 samples from 200 points in time, yielding millions of data points. The goal is to study Dr. Snyder’s genetic makeup over time to track external influences like illnesses, dietary changes and shifts in his personal habits. This is the science of epigenetics, which studies how external factors influence our chromosomes.
The study has been expanded to 100 people for the past three years. “We’re really learning in incredible detail how people are when they're healthy, and what happens when they do get sick,” Snyder said. What’s more, three of the 50 study subjects whose genome sequences have been studied in great detail have learned about DNA mutations that could have major health consequences.
For instance, they learned that one subject faces a high risk of a certain cancer. “Because she had her genome sequenced, she'll do a simple urine test to keep an eye out for this, which she would not have done had we not sequenced her DNA,” Snyder said. “She would have had no idea she was at risk for this.”
This is the essence of epigenetics: determining how the predispositions in our genetic makeup join forces with external factors to make us sick or keep us healthy.
Wearables join the health data revolution
Smartphones and fitness tracking devices that count steps and heartbeats are helping millions of people graph their workouts and make their weight-loss goals. But scientists like Snyder see far greater potential. After all, these devices all collect digital data that can be folded in with genomic data to better understand how exercise and diet influence our genomes.
“Believe it or not, there are over 500 health-related devices on the market that let you measure all kinds of different things,” Snyder said. The most basic devices do easy jobs like measuring your weight and sending it to a smartphone. Among the more sophisticated devices, more than 50 smartwatches continuously track a raft of crucial health data points including physical activities, skin temperature, sleep and stress responses that get relayed back to a smartphone.
“What that means is in the future your smartphone is going to be your nexus of health information,” Snyder said.
Why is this such a big deal? Think of it this way: A healthy person is awake for about 350,000 minutes a year and sees a doctor for perhaps 15-30 of those minutes. “It's like a tiny drop in a very, very large bucket,” Snyder said.
By contrast, wearables could show your doctor a year’s worth of data at your next checkup. That’s a potential quantum leap in your doctor’s ability to monitor your health and make smarter recommendations on diet, activity, medications and much more.
Immense potential of data, wearables and genomics
“Try to envision a world where people will be getting their genome sequenced before they're born,” Snyder said. Doctors will be able to combine biochemical measures with real-time, wearable data that all feeds back to a smartphone or the next generation of mobile devices.
All this could become commonplace for doctors and patients within the next 10 years, Snyder said.
Snyder says crunching this data from devices and our DNA will enable us to better predict disease risk, catch disease early, monitor disease and treat it. That, in turn, could enable a sea change in the practice of medicine — from reacting when people get sick to being proactive to keep them healthy.
The content in the article is based on the research and teaching of Stanford University’s Dr. Michael Snyder, Professor and Chair of Genetics. The Stanford Genetics and Genomics Certificate Program utilizes the expertise of the Stanford faculty, along with top industry leaders, to teach cutting-edge topics in the field of genetics and genomics. Through online genetics courses, you will build a solid base of knowledge to explore and understand advanced genetics topics of interest. Visit http://geneticscertificate.stanford.edu/ for more information.