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Pharmacies selling DNA tests to help patients pick best medications

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When Donna Gutteridge heard her local Pharmasave in Stouffville, Ont., was selling DNA tests that claimed to help determine what medications work best for individual patients, she decided to give it a try.

“A lot of the medications, they don’t agree with me … whether it be extra-strength Tylenol, ibuprofen, some of the other pain medications,” said Gutteridge, who suffers from back and nerve pain. “Even my doctor is baffled.”

So for about $200, Gutteridge is giving a saliva sample, which will be sent off to a private lab in Australia run by a company called myDNA. It does pharmacogenomic testing — a relatively new field that analyzes how people’s genes affect their responses to certain drugs.

In about two weeks, she will return to the pharmacy and log into her myDNA account to go over the results, said Nayan Patel, a pharmacist and the owner of the Stouffville store.

Gutteridge hopes the test will provide some insight she can take back to her doctor — and some options for medications that will work for her.

There are currently about 150 drugs that can be tested for known genetic interactions, including pain medications, cardiovascular and gastrointestinal drugs, as well as antidepressants.

These over-the-counter (also called “direct-to-consumer”) genetic tests are increasingly appearing in Canadian pharmacies, and range in cost $200 to $300.

It’s a worthwhile investment for patients struggling to find medications that work for them, Patel said.  

Pharmacogenomics, a relatively new field, is the study of how genes affect someone’s response to drugs. (Vasiliy Koval/Shutterstock)

“Pharmacists have always known that everybody is not the same. We give medications to one person and it works great, and another person, it doesn’t work so well,” he said. “We all metabolize medications differently.

“We didn’t really know how we could tell whether a medication would work for a patient, but now this gives [us] a great tool.”

‘Not quite there yet’

But it’s a tool that isn’t yet regulated by Health Canada. And although pharmacogenomics is a respected science used in hospitals and other clinical settings, many experts aren’t convinced these tests are ready to be used by consumers. 

“I think this is one of those things where the science is way ahead of the actual real application,” said Mina Tadrous, a pharmacist and research associate at St. Michael’s Hospital in Toronto.

“We’re learning more about how genes interplay and how our body breaks down drugs, uses drugs or perhaps has reactions to drugs. And often this affects [us] if we have adverse events or if they’re actually working well for us,” Tadrous said.

“It’s really exciting to think about the potential here and there’s a lot of really great examples, especially within hospitals or people initiating new drugs where [genetic tests] have been useful,” he said.

“[But] where I think this falls behind a little bit is that the actual evidence of using this in a community, in a more general basis is not quite there yet.”

Using a DNA test to determine how a drug is absorbed and how much of it gets to the target (e.g., brain or heart) in an individual’s body is “in principle … a great idea,” said Dr. James Kennedy, head of the molecular science at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health in Toronto.  

Some people are genetically prone to getting rid of a certain drug quickly, meaning it might not have time to take effect, he said. Others may be genetically predisposed to processing the same drug very slowly, meaning it can build up in the bloodstream and cause side effects. 

DNA testing is ‘a great starting point’ when it comes to understanding how your body handles medications, says Dr. James Kennedy at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health in Toronto. But there are many other factors at play. (CBC News)

The process of collecting genetic material from saliva for the tests is straightforward, Kennedy said, but interpreting the results can be much more complicated. 

“The DNA technology is very good,” he said. “But understanding how that plays out in a whole complex human being is not easy at all.”

There are other factors besides genetic makeup that can affect how a person interacts with medication, including how many drugs they are taking, whether they smoke, how much they exercise, their diet, and how much they sleep, he said. 

“We’re all a mixture of our genes and what we’re exposed to in our environment and how we react.” 

‘Great starting point’

Still, Kennedy doesn’t discount the value of direct-to-consumer tests — especially if people think they are either slow or fast metabolizers of certain drugs. But he cautions patients not to expect too much yet. 

“I think it’s a great starting point to begin to get information about your body and how it handles medications,” Kennedy said. “But don’t consider it the answer as to, you know, absolutely what drug you should be taking.”

This sample medication report shows what a consumer’s test results from myDNA might look like. The company says it analyzes genetic material taken from a saliva swab to help determine whether or not certain medications are right for that client, or if they should consider different dosages. (myDNA)

The Canadian Medical Association (CMA), however, is skeptical about direct-to-consumer genetic tests overall.   

Primary-care physicians “are faced with the challenge of appropriately counselling patients when they receive their test results,” the CMA said in its policy statement on direct-to-consumer genetic testing

“However, few physicians feel they have the necessary training and knowledge in genomics to provide adequate care in this area. Furthermore, these tests may have no clinical indication, produce uncertain results with ambiguous clinical applicability and have tenuous legal status, but they can potentially influence a patient’s sense of wellbeing,” the statement said.

If a doctor wants to use the results of a genetic test their patient purchased, “they should ensure that the laboratory performing the test guarantees analytical reliability and validity,” the CMA said. 

According to myDNA’s website, “a strict quality assurance process, combined with state of the art laboratory facilities, allows us to control reliability and validity of our tests. Our reports and findings are developed in accordance to internationally recognized guidelines and factor in [a] large number of published studies.”

Its analysis team includes pharmacologists and molecular and clinical geneticists, the website says.

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Top 5 Analytics Trends That Are Shaping The Future

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Digital transformation is increasingly becoming the focus for many CIOs around the world today—with analytics playing a fundamental role in driving the future of the digital economy.

While data is important to every business, it is necessary for businesses to have a firm grip on data analytics to allow them transform raw pieces of data into important insights. However, unlike the current trends in business intelligence—which is centred around data visualization—the future of data analytics would encompass a more contextual experience.

“The known data analytics development cycle is described in stages: from descriptive (what happened) to diagnostic (why did it happen), to discovery (what can we learn from it), to predictive (what is likely to happen), and, finally, to prescriptive analytics (what action is the best to take),” said Maurice op het Veld is a partner at KPMG Advisory in a report.

“Another way of looking at this is that data analytics initially “supported” the decision-making process but is now enabling “better” decisions than we can make on our own.”

Here are some of the current trends that arealready shaping the future of data analytics in individuals and businesses.

  1. Growth in mobile devices

With the number of mobile devices expanding to include watches, digital personal assistants, smartphones, smart glasses, in-car displays, to even video gaming systems, the final consumption plays a key role on the level of impact analytics can deliver.

Previously, most information consumers accessed were on a computer with sufficient room to view tables, charts and graphs filled with data, now, most consumers require information delivered in a format well optimized for whatever device they are currently viewing it on.

Therefore, the content must be personalized to fit the features of the user’s device and not just the user alone.

  1. Continuous Analytics

More and more businesses are relying on the Internet of Things (IoT) and their respective streaming data—which in turn shortens the time it takes to capture, analyze and react to the information gathered. Therefore, while analytics programspreviously were termed successful when results were delivered within days or weeks of processing, the future of analytics is bound to drastically reduce this benchmark to hours, minutes, seconds—and even milliseconds.

“All devices will be connected and exchange data within the “Internet of Things” and deliver enormous sets of data. Sensor data like location, weather, health, error messages, machine data, etc. will enable diagnostic and predictive analytics capabilities,” noted Maurice.

“We will be able to predict when machines will break down and plan maintenance repairs before it happens. Not only will this be cheaper, as you do not have to exchange supplies when it is not yet needed, but you can also increase uptime.”

  1. Augmented Data Preparation

During the process of data preparation, machine learning automation will begin to augment data profiling and data quality, enrichment, modelling, cataloguing and metadata development.

Newer techniques would include supervised, unsupervised and reinforcement learning which is bound to enhance the entire data preparation process. In contrast to previous processes—which depended on rule-based approach to data transformation—this current trend would involve advanced machine learning processes that would evolve based on recent data to become more precise at responding to changes in data.

  1. Augmented Data Discovery

Combined with the advancement in data preparation, a lot of these newer algorithms now allow information consumers to visualize and obtain relevant information within the data with more ease. Enhancements such as automatically revealing clusters, links, exceptions, correlation and predictions with pieces of data, eliminate the need for end users to build data models or write algorithms themselves.

This new form of augmented data discovery will lead to an increase in the number of citizen data scientist—which include information users who, with the aid of augmented assistance can now identify and respond to various patterns in data faster and a more distributed model.

  1. AugmentedData Science

It is important to note that the rise of citizen data scientist will not in any way eliminate the need for a data scientist who gathers and analyze data to discover profitable opportunities for the growth of a business. However, as these data scientists give room for citizen data scientists to perform the easier tasks, their overall analysis becomes more challenging and equally valuable to the business.

As time goes by, machine learning would be applied in other areas such as feature and model selection. This would free up some of the tasks performed by data scientist and allow them focus on the most important part of their job, which is to identify specific patterns in the data that can potentially transform business operations and ultimately increase revenue.

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Waterloo drone-maker Aeryon Labs bought by U.S. company for $265M

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Waterloo’s Aeryon Labs has been bought by Oregon-based FLIR Systems Inc. for $256 million, or $200 million US.

The acquisition was announced Monday. 

Dave Kroetsch, co-founder and chief technology officer of Aeryon Labs, says not much will change in the foreseeable future.

“The Waterloo operations of Aeryon Labs will actually continue as they did yesterday with manufacturing, engineering and all the functions staying intact in Waterloo and ultimately, we see growing,” he said.

“The business here is very valuable to FLIR and our ability to sell internationally is a key piece of keeping these components of the business here in Canada.”

Aeroyn Labs builds high-performance drones that are sold to a variety of customers including military, police services and commercial businesses. The drones can provide high-resolution images for surveillance and reconnaissance.

The drones already include cameras and thermal technology from FLIR. Jim Cannon, president and CEO of FLIR Systems, said acquiring Aeryon Labs is part of the company’s strategy to move beyond sensors “to the development of complete solutions that save lives and livelihoods.”

‘A piece of a bigger solution’

Kroetsch said this is a good way for the company to grow into something bigger.

“We see the business evolving in much the direction our business has been headed over the last couple of years. And that’s moving beyond the drone as a product in and of itself as a drone as a piece of a bigger solution,” he said.

For example, FLIR bought a drone company that builds smaller drones that look like little helicopters.

“We can imagine integrating those with our drones, perhaps having ours carry their drones and drop them off,” he said.

FLIR also does border security systems, which Kroetsch says could use the drones to allow border agents to look over a hill where there have been issues.

“We see the opportunity there as something that we never could have done on our own but being involved with and part of a larger company that’s already providing these solutions today gives us access not only to these great applications, but also to some fantastic technologies,” he said.

Aeryon Labs has done a lot of work during emergency disasters, including in Philippines after Typhoon Hagupit in 2014, Ecuador after an earthquake in 2016 and the Fort McMurray wildfire in 2016.

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Inuvik infrastructure may not be ready for climate change, says study

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The Arctic is expected to get warmer and wetter by the end of this century and new research says that could mean trouble for infrastructure in Inuvik.

The study from Global Water Futures looked at how climate change could impact Havipak Creek — which crosses the Dempster Highway in Inuvik, N.W.T. — and it predicts some major water changes.

“They were quite distressing,” John Pomeroy, director of Global Water Futures and the study’s lead author, said of the findings.

Researchers used a climate model and a hydrological model to predict future weather and climate patterns in the region. They also looked at data gathered from 1960 to the present. 

If greenhouse gas emissions continue at their current rate — which Pomeroy said they are on track to do — the study projects the region will be 6.1 C warmer by 2099 and precipitation, particularly rain, will increase by almost 40 per cent.

The study also found that the spring flood will be earlier and twice as large, and the permafrost will thaw an additional 25 centimetres. While the soil is expected to be wetter early in the summer, the study said it will be drier in late summer, meaning a higher risk of wildfires.

John Pomeroy is the director of Global Water Futures. (Erin Collins/CBC)

“The model’s painting kind of a different world than we’re living in right now for the Mackenzie Delta region,” Pomeroy said.

He noted these changes are not only expected for Havipak Creek, but also for “many, many creeks along the northern part of the Dempster [Highway].”

Pomeroy said the deeper permafrost thaw and a bigger spring flood could pose challenges for buildings, roads, culverts and crossings in the area that were designed with the 20th century climate in mind.

He said the projected growth of the snowpack and the spring flood are “of grave concern because that’s what washes out the Dempster [Highway] and damages infrastructure in the area.”

Culverts and bridges may have to be adjusted to allow room for greater stream flows, Pomeroy said. And building foundations that are dependent upon the ground staying frozen will have to be reinforced or redesigned.

Pomeroy said the ultimate solution is for humans to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

“This study is the future we’re heading for, but it’s not the future we necessarily have if we can find a way to reduce those gases,” he said.  

“It’d be far smarter to get those emissions under control than to pay the terrible expenses for infrastructure and endangered safety of humans and destroyed ecosystems.”

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