Can IT fuel the race to the $1,000 human genome?

Ever wonder if you have a genetic disposition to a certain disease, or why a medicine works for your friend, but not for you?

The answer might come sooner than you think. In the past couple of months, several significant breakthroughs in DNA sequencing technology have been made, giving hope to the researchers that a $1,000 genome is just around the corner.

Since the completion of the Human Genome Project in 2003, which took over a decade and cost over $300 million, the idea of personalized medicine and using genetic testing for medical procedures has become much more of a reality. Decoding a whole human genome is far too costly, and so, several companies are in a race to develop the next-generation DNA sequencer that will drive down the costs of sequencing a person's genome to $1,000, and to win the $10 million Archon X Prize - awarded to the company that successfully sequences 100 human genomes in 10 days for $10,000 per genome.

In February 2008, Illumina claimed to sequence a human genome in four weeks for $100,000, only to be outdone five weeks later by its competitor, Applied Biosystems (ABI), who announced the sequencing of a whole human genome for less than $60,000. ABI also mentioned that their next-generation DNA sequencer is capable of generating up to nine gigabases per run, which is the highest throughput reported to date. Also in February 2008, Pacific Biosciences (PacBio) presented a revolutionary technology that within 5-years could produce a three-minute raw sequence, and a complete, high-quality sequence in 15 minutes - all for under $1,000. PacBio plans to introduce a sequencing machine in 2010, but an instrument capable of performing the $1,000 whole genome sequencing will not be available until 2013.

The rapid advancement of next-generation DNA sequencers has been possible due to vast improvements in computer technology, specifically in speed and size. But is this enough? These new systems produce enormous amounts of data - one run could generate close to one terabyte of data - and bioinformatics and data management tools have to play catch-up to handle the analysis and storage of this data.

Data management and storage will always be an issue for the life science and medical research industries, and is something that vendors will constantly have to improve to appease the research world. Luckily, there is hope for software vendors. Researchers will only begin to warm to the idea that next-generation technologies produce better data, and will provide time- and cost-savings, if there are adequate software applications to analyze the data.

To support software development, ABI has supplied the bioinformatics and software vendor communities with sample data sets, data file formats, and data conversion tools. Other sequencing system providers should do the same if they want to provide their customers with the relevant software applications they need for next-generation sequencing projects. Software vendors should collaborate with the next-generation DNA sequencer providers, bioinformatics experts, and genomic researchers to develop research-specific - e.g. whole genome sequencing, gene expression, microRNA discovery, microbial sequencing, and genetic variation detection - software applications.

The $1,000 genome has the potential to bring the genomic age to the physician's office. At this price tag, DNA sequencing may become common for certain medical procedures - such as testing for cancer and developing treatments specifically for the patient - and one day, routine decoding at birth could provide parents with a genetic instruction guide to their children's future ailments. But this concept of genome sequencing as a standard medical procedure raises several privacy issues, as there is nothing more personal than your genetic code. Who should have access to this information, and how easily attainable would this data be for others? For example, should only the patient and physician share this knowledge, or should health insurance companies be privy to this valuable genome report? Technology vendors will have to work with the healthcare and medical industries to figure out the answers to these questions, and then develop the appropriate security protocols. Healthcare and life science IT vendors should utilize the expertise of other industries, such as the banking and credit card industry, that also require high levels of security in their day-to-day workflow to aid in the development of software to ensure patient privacy.

Thus far, the race to the $1,000 genome is neck-and-neck. Currently, the lack of software and sufficient data storage are major obstacles that next-generation sequence providers are attempting to hurdle. Technology vendors can help them cross the finish line faster by providing robust data management and storage systems and working with the healthcare and life science industries to develop relevant software applications. The research and medical communities are anxiously watching this race to the finish. Who will win the coveted $10 million Archon X Prize? Who will dominate this multi-billion dollar market?

Ruchi Mallya, Pharmaceutical Technology Analyst, Datamonitor


Ruchi Mallya is an analyst on Datamonitor's Public Sector Technology team, covering the life sciences. Her research focuses on the usage of technology in the pharmaceutical and biotechnology markets. Prior to joining Datamonitor, Ruchi was a research scientist at Roche Pharmaceuticals, where she specialized in human genetics and pharmacogenomics. She applied pharmaceutical technologies to explore potential drug targets and the effect of genetic variation on drug response in patients. Ruchi was also an engineer at Con Edison, New York City's utility company, where she created and applied steam distribution models in an effort to increase system efficiency. In addition, she conducted surveys of large steam customers aimed at improving recovery from system failures. Ruchi holds a Master's degree in Biomedical Engineering from Columbia University and a Bachelor of Engineering degree in Chemical Engineering from The Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art.

Datamonitor's most recently published Pharmaceutical Technology reports include:

- Addressing Key Challenges in Drug Safety
- 2008 Trends to Watch: Pharmaceutical Technology
- Business Trends: Pharmaceutical Technology
- Translational Medicine: Bridging Pharmaceutical Discovery and Development with IT
- Streamlining Information in the Pharmaceutical Industry with PLM
- Bringing Drugs to Market: The Role of CRM in Improving Sales & Marketing

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The opinions expressed here are the views of the writer and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of News Medical.
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