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Rewriting Life

The X Prize's New Frontier: Genomics

The $10-million prize could spur the advent of cheaper, faster DNA sequencing and personalized medicine.

A new race in human genome sequencing was launched yesterday–this time to see who can sequence genomes the fastest. The X Prize Foundation has just announced a $10-million award for the first privately funded team that can sequence 100 human genomes in 10 days. The same foundation sponsored the 2004 Ansari X Prize to develop a rocket for private space travel.

In addition to spurring the development of new sequencing technologies, the foundation hopes to bring attention to the ethical and legal issues of personal genomics, by sequencing the genomes of well-known people, including astrophysicist Stephen Hawking, Microsoft cofounder Paul Allen, and Google cofounder Larry Page.

Experts say that rapid gene sequencing technologies are also the key to personalized medicine: the ability to tailor medical treatments to an individual’s genetic profile. “It’s not far-fetched to think of a day when a standard part of your medical care is to determine your genome sequence,” says Francis Collins, director of the National Human Genome Research Institute (NHGRI) and leader of the Human Genome Project, the multi-billion-dollar, federally funded effort that released the first human genome sequence in 2003.

Researchers now want to sequence individuals’ DNA. Collins and others hope that such genomic information could inform doctors of the best drugs or doses for each patient.

While scientists have made rapid advances in genome sequencing–reading one letter of a genome now costs one-tenth of a cent, down from $10 in 1990–the process is still too slow and expensive for common use. “To achieve the goal of the prize, we have another factor of a thousand to go,” says Collins. “It’s a goal you can imagine being achieved–but it’s also going to be quite a stretch.”

Entirely new technologies are likely required to reach the goal of 100 genomes in 10 days, according to experts who spoke at a press conference yesterday in Washington, D.C. “Prizes allow a level of risk-taking that governments might not be able to do,” said X Prize founder Peter Diamandis. (Some new technologies are already in the works; see “Finding the Hidden Mutations That Control Cancer,” June 2006, “Deciphering DNA, Top Speed,” May 2005, and one of our 2006 TR35 winners.)

While everyone’s genome is 99.9 percent identical, small differences contribute to an individual’s risk of complex diseases, such as Alzheimer’s, diabetes, or depression. “We need databases of literally millions of human genomes and concomitant clinical information to decipher the influences of nature and nurture,” says Craig Venter, a scientific advisor for the prize.

Databases of human genomes could also speed up drug development, by showing scientists what molecules to target and allowing them to test new drugs in groups genetically selected to be the most likely to respond.

Experts hope the prize will also bring public awareness to the legal and ethical issues that might arise when genome sequences become a common part of an individual’s medical records. “It will open all sorts of new debates about privacy and ethics, debates Congress ought to have,” says Billy Tauzin, a former congressman and lobbyist for the pharmaceutical industry. A bill prohibiting discrimination based on genetic information was passed in the U.S. Senate two years ago, but has not yet come up for vote in the House.

The X Prize project will have a number of celebrity participants–an addition perhaps designed to make up for the fact that rapid genome sequencing doesn’t have the inherent excitement of a rocket launch. The first group to meet the goal of 100 genomes in 10 days will sequence an additional 100 genomes, including the DNA of celebrities and members of the public chosen by patient-advocacy groups. One of the first volunteers was Stephen Hawking, who suffers from Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, a debilitating neurological disease thought to have genetic roots.

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