AUGUSTA, Ga (WJBF) Researchers at the Medical College of Georgia at Augusta University are focusing on genes to detect cancer. Watch this interview and learn how new imaging allows doctors to spot the disease and begin treatment earlier. Thank you for watching The Means Report Monday afternoons at 12:30 on NewsChannel 6.

Welcome back to “The Means Report”. Always fascinated to find out about the latest research at the Medical College of Georgia at Augusta University. Research that often gets global attention and today is no different. We’re going to talk about something called optical genome mapping. I may say OGM throughout the interview, but optical genome mapping is something that was looked at in a recent study. Dr. Ravindra Kolhe co-authored it and he is with us now. Dr. Kolhe, thank you for your research and thanks for taking the time to be here.

Thank you, Brad. Thank you for inviting us and let us discuss or bring it to people here, what we are doing.

Well, it’s important to, I think, especially when it comes to cancer, a disease that touches so many people. When I first read about optical genome mapping, I thought, “Well, okay, this is a way to take a better picture of our genes so that you all can determine if something’s wrong that could lead to cancer.” Is that right?

Yes, absolutely. And traditionally, we have used multiple techniques to look at genome because cancer is a genome disease. Anything goes wrong with our genome, it gets translated into different cancers. So, the newer better technique we can use to look at this genome is gonna help us, number one, make a better diagnosis, classify the disease of the cancer better, and even figure out how and what we need to do in a timely manner to treat the patients.

How did you use to look at these images of our genes? And are you talking about a better camera now? How does it all work when you go inside and take a peek?

So traditionally, we have used a technique called karyotyping. So if you remember in, and this is a 80, maybe 100 year old technique where we actually look at the chromosomes, we put it on a picture, and we label them from 1 to 22 and XY or XX. And then, this is a very, very low resolution technology we have been traditionally used, that is a current standard of care. And then sometimes, we use targeted technique called FISH and we look at very small direct areas. And these two technologies, karyotype and FISH has been used for decades to investigate all the cancers we do.

Is this photography invasive or do you draw blood and then look at the blood?

So, all the traditional methods, we take the blood out. We let the cells in the blood grow in a culture and then we look under microscope to look at all these abnormalities or are chromosomes in the cancer cells.

What sparked your interest in building a better mouse trap? Did you just get sick of looking at blurry images and thought, “There has to be something.” “If a TV can have 4K, surely I can do the same.”

Absolutely, I mean all these years, I’ve been doing this for the last 10 to 12 years and we have these patients who have 100% cancer cells in their blood and we get these cells and then we put it in the culture, we let them grow. And with the restriction of low resolution technologies, nothing would show up. So we would just say normal karyotype or negative for FISH. But on the other side, we have a patient who has leukemia, who we don’t know how to treat, how to classify, because of the limitations of the technology. So this frustration, day in, day out, pretty much every single day, 40 to 50% of these patients I signed out saying that, “Oh, this is normal karyotype.” But I know this is 100% cancer cells, but the techniques are so limiting that it was such a frustration that I could not give better answers to our patients and the oncologists who were treating them.

You mentioned leukemia. What other kind of cancers can you detect with this mapping?

So pretty much each and every cancer, as long as we get the fresh samples. But leukemias tend to be one of the best and better use of this technology. So, what we do in this technology is basically, we take the same cells but we look at the DNA. So we look at what we call is long molecule DNA and we’ll put the label on the DNA, put it on the instrument, and there is extremely high resolution camera which takes the pictures of the entire genome or the DNA and puts together for me and my team to look at on the screen. So this is revolutionary game changing for us. I mean, I would like to compare that with the James Webb telescope. So all these years we were looking through our eyes in the sky and suddenly we have this extremely high resolution telescope and we are getting to look at things we didn’t know they existed. The galaxies, we’re looking at galaxies we didn’t know existed. And then, this is exactly what we are doing at genome now. So, we are looking at what we call as dark matter genome, which we never have any techniques to look at them. I mean, all these years when we say we looked at genome, we traditionally looked at what we call is 2% genome. The 98% of the genome was dark matter or we didn’t have ways to look at it. But we know this somehow always contributed to cancer or other diseases and unfortunately we could never dive in and look into those abnormalities of that part of the genome. And this is something we’re getting to, just go there now.

Does a cancerous genome look different than a healthy genome? Is it something that you can spot with your naked eye? Is it a different shape?

I mean not, definitely nothing with naked eye. So, this kind of technology-

I mean, the naked eye… I apologize. The naked eye looking at an image.

Yes, so definitely, I mean, this is what we are being trained for. I’m trained for as a pathologist, to spot that difference with something which is nothing, anything similar to normal cells. And those differences not only drive the cancers, but also help us to treat that difference or abnormality, design new drugs or find existing drugs which may not being traditionally assigned or used for that particular cancer. So, finding techniques or technologies to identify that abnormalities, which is only specific for cancers is what makes all this lot more exciting, and then better for the patient care.

Do you think optical genome mapping can lead to an earlier diagnosis in some cases?

Absolutely. I mean, we’re looking at not only early diagnosis, but better diagnosis. Not only better diagnosis, we can classify the leukemias way better and have very specific abnormalities identified, which not only help us what we call as prognostication or design prognosis, but also identify targets for those specific abnormalities. So, we were looking at change in clinical management. I mean there might be some leukemias why we can, identify patients who can go to bone marrow transplant early rather than give them chemotherapy and then come with a relapse. Or identify new abnormalities, which we never know existed because of the older, low resolution technologies. And these abnormalities we know either having something which is FDA-approved therapies for other cancer, which could be used in these or have this patient put on new clinical trials, which are looking at so many new things.

All right, so you mentioned your training has equipped you with the ability to obviously notice the abnormalities between cancerous cells and genes and non-cancerous. Is this something that you can communicate to the patient day of? Can they come in, you do the optical gene mapping, genome mapping, you get the images and you say, “Listen, I know this ain’t right.” And you you tell the patient right then, or is this something, information that you take to the oncologist and the oncologist takes it from there and communicates with the patient?

So, in cancer therapy, the process usually is the patient goes to the oncologist first and they look at it because they come with some sort of symptoms which are not associated, maybe not with the cancer. So you may feel tired or you may feel dizzy, and then you realize that you actually have a leukemia. So the oncologist make the diagnosis, sends us the sample, but the data, we try to make it extremely simplified. So even when we share the information with oncologist, the patient should be able to understand and make meaningful use of that information.

Well, I think you already answered this question when you talked about early detection, but I am presuming that the optical genome mapping might in the future lead to better cancer outcomes?

Yes, absolutely. I mean, outcome is basically how quickly can you intervene in the treatment plan. And if you find something which we all these years, we’re calling it normal. So if you say, “Oh, this is something which is abnormal”, then we can not only make a better plan, but actually make a definite plan which changes the clinical outcome. So, I am more than comfortable, 100% guaranteed that these kinds of technologies will definitely change the way we look at cancer, better classify them. So all these things ultimately accumulate are make better outcome for patients.

I have about 30 seconds left. Doctor, it may be too early, but I would suspect that you’re going to be getting a lot of attention from other parts of the country, potentially around the world. Has that started to happen yet? People going, “Oh, tell me more about this OGM.”

Yes, yes, already we are getting samples from Atlanta. We’re getting inquiries from Massachusetts. So, people are already discussing what we have done here. We are the first lab in United States which are doing this for patient care. All the patients who are coming to Georgia Cancer Center for leukemia treatment will get an option. Not just an option, you’ll get all this testing done. Our oncologist will be able to do all this thing for them.

Dr. Ravindra Kolhe, thank you so much for taking the time to be with me today. I appreciate it.

Thank you, thank you. I appreciate that.

You know, Dr. Kolhe and I were talking in the lobby before this interview and I said that he is a fixture on Channel 6 because of all the amazing research that you and your team do. And we wanna continue to shine the spotlight on the cancer center certainly and on MCG at AU. You do amazing work.

Thank you. Thank you very much for that.