What healthy looks like: New study offers clues based on personalized tracking

Photo by DariuszSankowski

Everyone’s body is a little bit different. So it is important to understand our personal biological makeup while we are still healthy, so deviations from these healthy baselines can be used to detect early signs of disease. That’s key to precision health.

“We generally study people when they’re sick, rarely when they’re healthy, and it means we don’t really know what ‘healthy’ looks like at an individual biochemical level,” said Stanford geneticist Michael Snyder, PhD, in a recent Stanford news release.

As part of an international collaboration, Snyder used big data approaches to profile and track the health of more than 100 people at risk for diabetes for up to eight years. Participants underwent extensive testing each quarter, including clinical laboratory testing, exercise and physiological testing, microbial and molecular assessments, genetic sequencing, cardiovascular imaging and wearable sensor monitoring using smart watches or glucose monitors.

The goal of the study was to evaluate whether the emerging technologies could detect diseases early. During the study, the researchers discovered over 67 major clinically-actionable health issues — spanning across metabolism disorders, cardiovascular disease, cancer, blood disorders and infectious diseases. Namely, most of the participants had an unknown potential health problem flagged by the study, as reported in a paper recently published in Nature Medicine.

“We caught a lot of health issues because we noticed their delta, or their change from baseline. For instance, we caught nine people with diabetes as it was developing by continuously monitoring their glucose and insulin levels,” Snyder explained in the release. He added, “We were able to catch a lot of things before they were even symptomatic. And in most cases, it either led to folks being followed more carefully or to a medical intervention.”

The research team also used the big datasets to discover new biomarkers that may be able to predict the risk of cardiovascular and certain other diseases. Although preliminary, these results have inspired them to conduct larger follow-up studies.

This approach of extensively tracking personal health is currently too expensive to implement into standard health care on a broad scale, according to Snyder. But he hopes the prices will drop as more researchers and physicians innovate in the space.

“Ultimately, we want to shift the practice of medicine from treating people when they are ill to a focus on keeping them healthy by predicting disease risk and catching disease before it is symptomatic,” Snyder said.

This is a reposting of my Scope blog story, courtesy of Stanford School of Medicine.

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NASA videos highlight using omics to study what happens to a body in space

Space is a hostile place, even inside a spacecraft. Radiation, weightlessness and isolation are only a few of the unique stressors faced by astronauts during space travel.

As NASA prepares for a manned journey to Mars, researchers are studying what happens to the human body in space to determine the health risks of a several-year mission. This research includes a unique study of identical twin astronauts to investigate the effects of spaceflight at a molecular level — comparing data from Scott Kelly, who recently completed a one-year space mission, with data from his brother who led a normal life on Earth.

NASA recently produced a series of web videos, “Omics: Exploring Space Through You, ” that discusses its twins study and features Michael Snyder, MD, professor and chair of genetics at Stanford and principal investigator on one of the projects. Omics is a field of study that integrates different types of molecular information and, as Snyder explains in the introductory video:

“In many respects, it’s like a jigsaw puzzle. A jigsaw puzzle can be made of 1000 pieces but you don’t really see the picture until you put all those pieces together. That’s the same for omics; you basically try and understand all of the individual pieces so you can see the whole picture.”

NASA is making billions of measurements of both twins to see what space really does to the human body. And researchers hope that one day omics profiles will be conducted on a large scale in clinics, not just on astronauts, so we can switch from a “one size fits all” approach to personalized medicine.

“OMICS is really an amazing field where we can look at people and their health at a level that’s never been possible before,” Snyder comments. “And with that we’ll be able to better manage people’s health and try and keep them healthy long before they get sick.”

This is a reposting of my Scope blog story, courtesy of Stanford School of Medicine.