Interview with Nurjana Bachman: Is Claritas Genomics becoming the foundation to clinical genetics in pediatrics?

It could be argued that medical innovation companies, such as Claritas Genomics, are revolutionizing the field of genomics through their multidisciplinary approach, combining cutting-edge science and modern technology to inform and enhance patient care.

Claritas Genomics, a local Cambridge-based company, uses next-generation sequencing to provide a wide range of genetic diagnostic services for the needs of ordering providers, hospitals and researchers. In order to build a robust high-quality infrastructure in genetics and genomics, the company spun out of Boston Children’s Hospital in February 2013 and has since enjoyed success as a separate entity. Despite the separation, Claritas continues to hold a strong bond with the children’s hospital as it continues to provide genetic testing for Boston Children’s patients. This independence is enabling the company to grow and to build important new partnerships.

Nurjana Bachman, PhD, Claritas Genomics’s Chief Business Officer, was at Boston’s Children Hospital for almost nine years, starting out in technology licensing and later in corporate partnerships. She was initially involved in the hospital’s genomics initiative before the company became its own entity under its new name – Claritas Genomics. Dr. Bachman kindly provided MedTech Boston an interview, and here’s what we learned:

How is Claritas Genomics accelerating genomic discovery in medicine?

NB: That is part of our focus. We are a genetic testing company but we’re also partnering with the pediatric hospitals because we’d like to facilitate connections between them so that they can accelerate their own quest for new discoveries. So our job is not to make the discoveries – we’re not doing genetic discovery research here at Claritas – but we are providing the pediatric hospitals with the infrastructure that will help enable them to do so with the information they have and enabling them to share their information with one another in a way that’s compliant with all rules and regulations. Also, because we’re originally coming from an institution we know the sensibilities and the sensitivities of institutions – that certain kinds of things are not feasible, like companies owning data. Data comes from the institutions, so we’re not coming out with a proposal that Claritas is going to own all their data. Rather, we’re aiming to enable them.

What are some genetic conditions that you are able to test for through your technology?

NB: We can really test for any genetic condition; we’re focused on inherited diseases in pediatrics. We’re currently not doing DNA testing from tumors for oncology, but we’re doing any other kind of inherited disease testing: neuromuscular diseases, respiratory, neurology, whether it’s epilepsy or autism, immunodeficiencies, endocrinology…because the tests have come from the hospital itself, it is really across the board in any kind of inherited diseases.

Tell us more about Next-Generation sequencing and how Claritas Genomics uses it in its services.

NB: Next-Generation sequencing is a powerful platform that allows very fast sequencing of DNA and there are a couple of different platforms out there. Life Technologies is one of the founding investors in Claritas, and we are working with a set of Life’s Ion Protons to do large-scale research sequencing projects – for example, we just got a contract to do 18,000 exomes for the Veterans Administration. We are working to optimize on the Ion Proton platform because of its unique strengths, including its fast turn-around time and scalability.

This exome project is said to be one of the largest sequencing initiatives in the US. What are the goals of this initiative and would you say that this project is your company’s distinguishing feature?

NB: The project is a very large project. It’s an aggressive project and the goal of the Veterans Administration is to sequence a million veterans over a number of years. I believe they already have over 200,000 samples banked.

In terms of the distinguishing feature of our company, I think the ability to do exomes for research at scale is one of those – because we are working on the Life platform primarily. However, I really think that our focus in pediatrics and in medicine is probably more of a distinguishing feature of our company. If you were to look at other companies and what they have and what we have, I think that where we really are different is the fact that we have deep connections to pediatric hospitals and that brings unique insights into the clinical relevance of our results.

Why is it that you have chosen to focus on the area of pediatrics genetics in particular? What’s so special about pediatrics genetics?

NB: What’s special about it, I think, is that genomics can make a real positive impact in pediatrics for patients in the near term. Most pediatric disorders are genetic, and most rare disorders are genetic, so it’s an area where, if we can actually connect the experts to one another and have Claritas be the platform for getting that information out of the pediatric hospitals to more patients and more people, we can support the building of the large sample sets that are necessary for making discoveries in rare disorders. With rich information sets, the community will be able to make new discoveries more quickly and bring those innovations to patients.

So, you have had a close partnership with Boston Children’s Hospital, as you have mentioned. Can you tell us about the importance of integration between medical innovation companies, hospitals and doctors?

NB: Yes – you asked me a question that is very close to my heart because in my prior life I was on the other side – the hospital side. I think what you all are doing at MedTech Boston is interesting and that if you want to look at the Boston innovation ecosystem, you should just go and talk to all the people at the difference licensing offices around town and find out what the cool projects are. That’s a great way to find some really interesting things that are going on. I think that it’s critical for hospitals and institutions to partner with companies whether through spin-offs or licensing into large or small companies – mainly for the reason that it will help those innovations get to patients more quickly and more effectively.

Technology advancement in genomics has been astounding. There has been a dramatic decline in the cost of sequencing a human genome, decreasing at a rate faster than Moore’s law. What are the current challenges that the field of genomics faces, given that it is still relatively a new field?

NB: The challenges are first to process the information, then to make sense of it all. And most importantly to make medical use of that information – that’s going to be the next phase of the challenge and that is actually why Claritas was formed – because that challenge is great and requires a great deal of expertise and teams whose members have complementary expertise. You can’t do genomics in a way that makes an impact without doing medicine also – you have to connect the two things together for genomics to become medically relevant.

Do you think cost is still a big hurdle in genomics?

NB: Absolutely, I think the cost is still there. The cost of sequencing has dramatically changed, as you said – and it’s been a drastic and dramatic change. The cost may continue to go down but the complexity of the information is going to remain, so there will be some aspect of cost associated with genomics just because of the complexity.

What’s the future like for Claritas Genomics? How is it going to be in five or ten years’ time?

NB: I think if Claritas is able to bring together a community of pediatric hospitals around genomics and genetic disease so that we can bring the most meaningful results back to patients and families in an efficient and effective way, we would be quite happy.

Conclusion:

Claritas Genomics is quickly becoming a key member of the pediatric clinical genetic testing community by providing a platform that pediatric hospitals can utilize and connect through, in order to address the challenges that genomics brings to healthcare. It seems that integration has been a key component to the success of this newly founded organization. Its long-term partnership with Boston Children’s Hospital has helped the company to innovate more effectively and quickly, enabling it to take up large-scale initiatives like the Million Veteran program. Its mission to develop a collaborative network of pediatrics hospitals and encourage institutions to share data and expertise plays a central part to the company’s ethos. With the recent announcement of Cincinnati Children’s Hospital joining the Claritas Pediatric network, the company is quickly becoming an important player in not only the field of genomics, but also the wider community of medical innovators.

Adnan Chowdhury

Adnan Chowdhury

I am an eighteen-year old medical applicant living in London, UK.I am greatly fascinated by the art of medicine and it's ability to transform lives. Through writing, I hope to develop a better understanding of what it takes to become a competent and compassionate physician, who is able to practice good medicine.

In this current day, it is apparent that 'big data' is revolutionising healthcare and through my interests in programming and medicine, I hope to make a contribution to this fast-pace growing movement of digital health.

In my gap year, along with writing for the MedTech Boston, I am also working in hospitals, volunteering for charitable organisations and travelling across the globe.
Adnan Chowdhury

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