Blood, sweat, and tears: Every researcher experiences them from time to time, but for Stanford geneticist Michael Snyder, they are at the heart of his work. Three years ago, he set out to create a microscopic profile of personal health, cataloging not just an individual’s genes but also proteins, snippets of RNA, and other crucial molecules. Snyder needed a reliable test subject who would not balk at any distressing information the project might uncover, so he volunteered himself. Over the next 14 months, he donated 20 blood samples. He sequenced his own genome and then analyzed 40,000 molecules, tracking how their levels changed over time. It was the first time such a detailed, integrated profile had been created. In the end, Snyder got more than he bargained for as he watched himself develop type 2 diabetes. DISCOVER reporter Valerie Ross spoke with him about the project and about his hopes for a new medicine that is personalized to a patient’s precise molecular makeup.
Discover: Why look at your genome and blood chemistry in such detail?
Michael Snyder: When you get a routine blood test, doctors typically measure 15 things or fewer. You should be able to get a much better sense of someone’s risks and health state.
How did you find out about your diabetes?
My genome predicted a risk for diabetes, which was not really in my family history, so that was a big surprise. Over the course of the study, I had two common colds, one a rhinovirus and the other a respiratory virus. After the respiratory infection, my glucose levels shot up. A few weeks later, I went to my general practitioner, she tested my glucose, and it was even higher. I was officially diabetic. Did your personal health profile explain why you got diabetes? Could the infection have contributed? Viral infections have been associated with type 1 diabetes, but not with type 2. Since stress responses have been associated with type 2, one interpretation is that my genome was predisposed to getting diabetes, and then the stress response to the virus actually triggered the disease. That’s something we’re following up on.
How might such intensely personalized medical profiles benefit others?
The power of this kind of personal profiling is going to be in predicting what you might be at risk for and in catching diseases early, shifting medicine from reactive to proactive.
What will it take to make such profiles practical for the average patient?
A simple version could be done for under $1,000. That price will keep dropping, especially as we get good at it. In the not-so-distant future, it will be a few hundred dollars. Right now we’re still in the discovery phase. We just don’t know which of these 40,000 things we’re measuring are going to be the most useful for understanding health, and so maybe in the future you don’t need to measure all 40,000.