“Dark social” or “Who is afraid of email?”

Heathrow. Dark social? Threat? I’ll get back to that. I am writing this wrap-up post for the SpotOn 2013 meeting overlooking the British Airways planes on their way to take-off. In the last two days, we caught a glimpse of what online science communication is about. On Saturday, we had our own session #solo13blogs on using blogs for peer-to-peer science communication. As a science communication newbie, I am happy that our session was well received and stimulated quite some discussion. I have taken away three things from this meeting – a new understanding of our readership, an appreciation for Open Access and data sharing, and finally, a fear of the destructive power of dark social that also applies to epilepsy genetics research. But first things first. Continue reading

SpotOn London, Open Access and the Higgs boson

#solo13. Some strange symbols that made it onto our blog originate on Twitter. The “#” (hash) precedes a hashtag, which indicates a Twitter topic. “@” (at) is called a handle, a possibility to contact people. As you might remember from our previous announcements, Roland and me are currently participating in SpotOn 2013, a conference for online science communication. The meeting is held at the British Library in London. This is just a brief update on what #solo13 was about today. Continue reading

SpotOn London 2013 – communicating science online

Outreach. SpotOn is a series of community events for the discussion of how science is carried out and communicated online. SpotOn London (November 7-9, 2013) is organized by the Nature Publishing Group and represents the flagship conference of the SpotOn series. SpotOn discussions fall into three broad topic areas – policy, outreach, and tools – and this site collates the conversations and other archive material around all of the events. Within the outreach track, Roland and I will contribute to the session about scientist-to-scientist communication using blogs and other online tools. Here is why this pertains to you: in a semi-strategic last-minute move, we managed to reserve one extra ticket that we would like to give to a young scientist who would like to join us in London. Short notice? Spontaneous ideas are sometimes the best ideas. Also, for everybody else, there is one last chance on Friday at 12:00 London time to get tickets. Continue reading

Relationship quality equals bandwidth – a love letter to my wife

Transatlanticism. This is the 165th post on this blog. My wife Katie read every single one of them, correcting my Denglish phrases, adding Oxford commas, and giving me valuable feedback from her unique perspective as a certified genetic counselor with a research background in epilepsy genetics. Today is Katie’s birthday, and I would like to dedicate this post to her by saying thank you and I love you. Katie and I met at the Epilepsy Research Centre in Melbourne, Australia. In 2007, while driving around Lake Alexandrina in South Australia on a road trip, we listened to Transatlanticism by Death Cab for Cutie. This song became emblematic of our relationship for the years to come while we maintained a long-distance relationship between the US (Katie’s Masters in genetic counseling) and Germany (my residency in Kiel). In 2009, after two years of living on different continents, we were finally reunited. If you were to ask me about the main lesson I took away from this time apart, I would sum this up in a single sentence: “Relationship quality equals bandwidth”. This post is a reflection on why quality matters in the communication between geographically separated individuals. It won’t be a purely romantic post. That’s not my style, and that’s ok with Katie – she has corrected this post, as well. Continue reading

Conferences on Twitter

Bioinformatics at large. The ISMB conference is a big event and summarizing seven parallel sessions requires additional channels than physical presence. Luckily, there is the Internet. A sufficient number of scientists report of the current session on social media tools like Twitter. In previous years, the conference was supported by FriendFeed but the slow demise of the platform no longer made it possible. Continue reading

Be literate when the exome goes clinical

Exomes on Twitter. Two different trains of thoughts eventually prompted me to write this post. First, a report of a father identifying the mutation responsible for his son’s disease pretty much dominated the exome-related twittersphere. In Hunting down my son’s killer, Matt Might describes his family’s journey that finally led to the identification of the gene coding for N-Glycanase 1 as the cause of his son’s disease, West Syndrome with associated features such as liver problems. The exome sequencing that finally led to the discovery was part of a larger program on identifying the genetic basis of unknown, putatively genetic disorders reported in a paper by Anna Need and colleagues, which is available through open access. This paper is an interesting proof-of-principle study that exome sequencing is ready for prime time. Need and colleagues suggest exome sequencing can find causal mutations in up to 50% of patients. By the way, a gene also that turned up again was SCN2A in a patient with severe intellectual disability, developmental delay, infantile spasms, hypotonia and minor dysmorphisms. This represents a novel SCN2A-related phenotype, expanding the spectrum to severe epileptic encephalopathies.

The exome consult. My second experience last week was my first “exome consult”. A colleague asked me to look at a gene list of a patient to see whether any of the genes identified (there were 300+ genes) might be related to the patient’s epilepsy phenotype. Since I wasn’t sure how to best handle this, I tried to run an automated PubMed search for combination of 20 search terms with a small R script I wrote. Nothing really convincing came up except the realisation that this will be an issue that we will be increasingly faced in the future: working our way through exome dataset after the first “flush” of data analysis did not reveal convincing results. Two terms that came to my mind were bioinformatic literacy as something that we need to improve and Program or be Programmed, a book by Douglas Rushkoff on the “Ten commands of the Digital Age”. In his book, he basically points out that in the future, understanding rather than simply using IT will be crucial.

The cost of interpretation is rising. The Genome Center in Nijmegen suggests on their homepage that by the year 2020, whole-genome sequencing will be a standard tool in medical research.  What this webpage does not say is that by 2020, 95% of the effort will not go into the technical aspects of data generation, but into data interpretation. For biotechnology, interpretation will be the largest marketing sector.

By 2020, probably more than 10 million genomes will have been sequenced. Data interpretation rather than data generation will represent the most pressing issue.

So, what about epilepsy? “50% of cases to be identified” sounds good for any grant proposal that I would write, but this might be a clear overestimate. Need and colleagues used a highly selected patient population and even in the variants they identified, causality is sometimes difficult to assess. We are maybe much further away from clinical exome sequencing in the epilepsies than we would like to admit. The only reference point we have for seizure disorders to date is large datasets for patients with autism and intellectual disability. While some genes with overlapping phenotypes can be identified, we would virtually be drowning in exome data without being capable of making sense of this.

10,000 exomes now. I would like to predict that after having identified some low-hanging fruits with monogenic disorders, 10,000 or more “epilepsy exomes” would have to be collected before making significant progress. It is, therefore, crucial not to be tempted by wishful thinking that particular epilepsy subtypes necessarily have to be monogenic, as in the case of epileptic encephalopathies or other severe epilepsies. Much of the genetic architecture of the epilepsies might be more complex than anticipated, requiring larger cohorts and unanticipated perseverance.