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Genomics Gets Personal, Part 2: Ten Questions with Dawn Barry, VP Life Sciences and Applied Markets

Lilly Grossman
| Jul 14, 2015

Dawn Barry is a Vice President of Illumina’s Life Sciences and Applied Markets, responsible for identifying, catalyzing, and developing new markets and solutions. She previously has held leadership roles in Sales, Marketing, and Market Development for the company. Dawn was originally responsible for building the Illumina market development function and has been a key driving force behind the Understand Your Genome (UYG) program. I sat down with Dawn and asked her a few questions about how genomics is changing human health.

  1. Q: What does the promise of personalized medicine mean to you? What does it mean to Illumina?

A:   For me, the promise of personalized medicine is that we learn to begin to manage our health from a position of wellness versus illness. Instead of waiting for a lump or a pain to react, we could be screened regularly and treated with precision ahead of the damage from a disease. Personalized, or precision medicine would also mean fewer toxic side effects because we can choose the best compounds and doses for our unique metabolic profile. I think we will know that precision medicine has arrived when we start talking about treating specific gene mutations, rather than diseases.

  1. Q: How can genomics make doctors and patients closer together or farther apart?

A:   Genomics promises to be a powerful diagnostic tool that should bring patients and doctors closer together, but there is still much work to do in discovering new genomic information and its association with health. In these early days of adoption, the subject of genomics may create tension between doctors and patients, for example, as consumers get genomic information through direct-to-consumer channels ahead of physician readiness to incorporate this information in their practice. On the positive side, we are already seeing a real difference in the lives of cancer patients and their families through genome sequencing. 

  1. Q: After getting your genome sequenced and finding out the results, what is a possible “next step” that someone can take with their newfound knowledge?

A:   Some of the next steps depend on what is clinically interpreted from your genome.  For example, the Illumina TruGenome Predisposition Screen, done in our San Diego CLIA lab, interprets in areas of carrier status, genetic predisposition to adult onset conditions, and pharmacogenomics. Depending on what stage you are in your life, this information may be useful. For example, knowing your carrier status is informative if you are considering having a family. Insights into your predisposition to adult onset conditions can influence you to manage your diet and lifestyle differently. Understanding how you metabolize various drugs can be helpful in working with your doctor or pharmacist if you have to take medications. Beyond health insights, you can consider leaving your genomic information to your family, as a molecular family history, so to speak. You can even donate your genome information to research. If you’ve gotten your genome sequenced through Illumina, you can “surf” through MyGenome or share it with genomic professionals, if there are specific insights you are seeking.

  1. Q: How do you see genomic information being used in the next five or ten years?

A:  I think within the next five to ten years, we will really see where the true age of applied genomic intelligence will take us. This is because among other factors, the cost, accessibility, and speed of genomic results will make it reachable by most people. I hope secure and reliable data management will be embedded in society five years from now, thereby allowing medical researchers and physicians to accelerate our collective understanding of the roles of all the biological molecules of life (DNA, RNA, and protein). If this happens, then we will be closer to all humans having their DNA mapped at birth and checked annually to identify any changes that could point to the onset of diseases. 

  1. Q: When do you think genomics will become a part of daily life?

A:  I’ll define “part of daily life” as a routine interaction and consideration of one’s health at the level of their specific biology. In order for this to become a reality, many developments need to occur not the least of which is more of the genome needs to be understood in a way that’s actionable for us. This is more complex than it sounds because it goes beyond finding the variation in our DNA, but also to understanding the roles of RNA and protein, so we have a complete picture of our biological systems.  I should also add that there are lots of companies emerging, especially targeting your demographic, Lilly, that want to make social connections– likeness to celebrities, shopping habits, dating, preference for music, based on genetic matching. We’ll leave it to your generation to determine the usefulness of some of these things!

  1. Q: What do you think about “ownership” of your genomic information and policies that are in place to protect that information? How might this change?

A: There is a fear that misinterpretation of one’s genomic information will inflict psychological stress when not properly contextualized and understood. Such anxiety may prompt individuals to take unnecessary action, from additional doctor visits to preventative surgery, which may tax the healthcare system. Such considerations and rules to protect individuals are in place for a reason; we are simply in the early days of consumer access to their genomic information. The good news is that the proper data will be produced through longitudinal studies, like the PeopleSeq Study, that are examining the impact of individuals having and exploring their own genomic information.

  1. Q: What significant challenges do you see in making genomics relevant to people like my friends and me?

A:  We need to understand what all the unique DNA variations are and what they do, not only in isolation, but what they do in combinations. Then, there are other things we need to fully understand, such as the transcriptome (the study of all the RNA molecules) and proteome (the study of the entire set of proteins express by the genome, cell, or tissue at a certain time) and how these molecular functions relate to wellness or disease. Assuming we have this all figured out, we are going to need great tools that collect and serve up meaningful information to us in a seamless way with sensors and visual capture technology. And finally, the cost to do these things would need to be at the point where groups of individuals can make these businesses successful.

  1. Q: How will knowing about someone’s genomic information affect public perception, medical, and lifestyle choices?

A:  Simply put, I hope we will be able to live longer and healthier lives through a better understanding of human biology. I hope that we can be more deliberate and knowledgeable about how we take care of the environment, grow and manage food, and tailor our lifestyles based on personalized genomic feedback. We actually asked the question of Illumina employees how genomics can transform all aspects of our future, and we made a really powerful video about our hopes.

  1. Q: What will knowing about genomic information do for the next generation?

 A:  Today, the best predictor of your future health is to examine your family history.  Your genome, paired with the information on your lifestyle, medical history, and environment could be the ultimate molecular family history to pass down to the next generation so that they can manage their health more specifically.

  1. Q: If you were to imagine the lives of our grandkids and great-grandkids, what would be the most hard-to-believe story you’d tell them about the “pre-genomic” age?

A:  I think our great-grandkids will not be able to believe that we, as a society, didn’t consider our unique genomic makeup when aiming to achieve optimal wellness or manage illness. They will not be able believe that we diagnosed disease by physical manifestation and prescribed drugs based on statistical medicine with largely age and weight as the dose guidance!