Highlights #FOGM18 Day 1: Data from Ancient Dirt, Genomics Dilemmas, CAR-T, & CRISPR

FOGM venue Scripps Seaside Forum
FOGM venue Scripps Seaside Forum

There are many genomics meetings out there these days, but The Future of Genomic Medicine meeting (#FOGM18) at Scripps in La Jolla is one of my favorites. This meeting is uniquely empowering.

The people and the talks combine for a one-of-a-kind experience. The venue doesn’t hurt either at the Scripps Seaside Forum. The evening before the meeting I walked from the hotel to the venue and took a picture from below at sunset. If you look up by the palm trees you can see hang gliders puttering award in the sky, likely from the hang glider port just north up near the Salk.

This is now my 2nd year attending FOGM and each time I’ve greatly enjoyed the talks both inside the auditorium and outside just chatting with people. You can see my top 10 takeaways from last year’s FOGM here. I want to thank organizer Ali Torkamani, who took the lead this year, and Eric Topol for inviting me to come speak again.

FOGM venue Scripps Seaside Forum
FOGM venue Scripps Seaside Forum

Yesterday was Day 1 of FOGM18 and it was fantastic. There was a major emphasis on data (both in big and not so big forms), but also humanizing genomics.

Although it is outside my area of expertise, the talks on the Genetics of Human Origins were one highlight for me so I’ll start there as I think it is a fascinating, unusual area of research.

Grad student Viviane Slon of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology gave an exciting talk on obtaining useable mammalian including hominin DNA from sediments (a.k.a layers of “dirt”). It turns out, you don’t need to necessarily find actual bones or fragments to get useful ancient DNA. Slon used some clever technical approaches to successfully fish out hominin and other mammalian DNA from the sea of heterogeneous DNA in sediment that can be dominated by microbial DNA. This approach opens the door to getting new knowledge of evolution and genetics of human origins. One of the questions I didn’t get a chance to ask was “What is the half-life of DNA ‘out in the wild’ and what influences that?” She also went over a nice approach that allows researchers to distinguish between the ancient DNA and modern human DNA contaminants. Great talk!

Her talk was followed by one given by Eske Willerslev of Cambridge. He gave a wonderful, sweeping overview of how genomics has taught us about human origins and migrations. He started on the Americas and addressed different hypotheses about where the first peoples originated and how they came to this last area that was settled by hominids. Lots of different ideas here and probably strong feelings. It’s interesting how there are also conflicts and tensions between physical and genomic anthropology. He went through global human migrations with key genomic insights. It was a scholarly, but very approachable talk.

One of the lessons from both these human origins talks is how much we can learn from DNA obtained out in the field and also about how complex human migrations likely were with many streams one way and then back, divergent streams, etc.

Most other FOGM speakers talked about “modern DNA and genomics” if you will, what we can do with it, how we can (and should carefully) interpret huge data sets, and how genomics and our world are changing in tandem.

eric topol food blood sugar score chart
Eric Topol slide, food blood sugar score chart

Eric Topol got things started with a wonderful overview of where we are and how fast genomics is changing medicine, both for physicians and patients. Genomic data when utilized properly can inform health and medical decisions in impactful ways.

Eric also talked about personal health in the context of both genomics and data collected from monitoring. It was striking to hear about how he had his own blood glucose monitored for 2 weeks, kept a food diary, and was able to map out a literal personalized score sheet for himself of which foods impact his blood glucose in different ways.

As for dairy foods, skim milk and especially non-fat yogurt scored poorly for Eric. Dang, I eat those. Being protein-rich is not enough! You need some fat in there. Amongst grains, granola was surprisingly far better than some other things including ciabatta with avocado, oatmeal, rice cakes, etc. I thought granola would be a problematic food for blood sugar. You can see a screenshot of one of his slides above (included with Eric’s permission). Notably, each of us will respond somewhat different to the foods we eat. Also, it seems that human genetics only plays a partial role in blood sugar (and likely other) responses to certain foods and it is thought that each of our own distinct microbiomes may play a relatively bigger role.

Right before I spoke, we all got to enjoy the talk “Genetic and Epigenetics Approaches to Treat Disease and Aging”
by Juan Carlos Izpisua Belmonte, He went over a whole host of cool projects ongoing in his lab, including quite a few involving reprogramming and epigenetic use of CRISPR, much of it to fight aging. Juan Carlos is a fearless scientist who does some game-changing, risky research. The idea of fighting aging via reprogramming related to IPS cell formation is intriguing, but I do worry about the risk of tumorigenesis.

Our session also included interesting updates on the use of gene editing for making next generation CAR-T cells for cancer therapies. For instance, Yvonne Chen of UCLA talked about cool technology evolving to make CAR-T kinds of cells that essentially have a “two-step authentication”-like process for activation that makes them more specific. After our session wrapped up with a panel discussion, Juan Carlos received the 11th Annual Scripps Translational Science Institute Award from Ali Torkamani. Well-deserved.

Other FOGM speakers emphasized the big (does the word “big” even do the magnitude justice?) extent of the data out there and the continuing explosion of data within which are currently existing. Jill Mesirov, Associate Vice Chancellor for Computational Health Sciences here at UCSD, and Jeffrey Hammerbacher at Icahn School of Medicine Mount Sinai, who also used to be Facebook’s head data guy, gave interesting talks. Mesirov updated us on her work on an area that has been a subject that I also work on: childhood brain tumors. She talked about how genomic data has helped classify medulloblastomas into different subgroups with important implications for treatment options for the kids. Her work on the role of the MYC family in medulloblastoma struck a chord for me as that’s something I have also worked on in the past.

We wrapped up with a big picture talk about genetics and genomics from Bonnie Rochman. I’m going to start reading her new book The Gene Machine on the plane back tonight. She is an exceptional science story-teller and does such an effective job personalizing dilemmas. I enjoyed both the science and the patient stories.

Overall, Day 1 was both fascinating and fun for me as a scientist. I learned a lot.


  1. Does Izpisua have a project replicating his earlier results on aging with intermittent OSKM induction this time with normally aging mice instead of progeroid mice. There has not been much followup so far to that 2016 study you also discussed on your blog.

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