How will gene sequencing transform medicine?

The XPrize is famous for launching Richard Branson’s career in space, which turns out was harder than cracking the secrets of the healthiest human genomes. The $10 million Archon Genomics XPrize was supposed to pit geneticists in a race to sequence the genomes of 100 centenarians. The goal was to produce the first “medical-grade genome”, what the prize’s backers hoped would become the gold standard for measuring the health of one’s own chromosomes when it comes to defects, diseases and longevity. It heralded a world in which we regularly have our DNA sequenced for personally tailored gene therapy or following treatment—just as we might visit the doctor for a check-up.

In 2013, the XPrize was cancelled: it had become obsolete. “What we realised is that genome sequencing technology is plummeting in cost and increasing in speed independent of our competition,” admitted XPrize chairman Peter Diamandis. Genome sequencing is now down to $1000 and it is enabling new forms of research.

Earlier this year, for example, biotech firm Genentech partnered with 23andMe to study the entire genomes of 3000 Parkinson patients and their relatives in an effort to find new cures to Parkinson’s disease. Back in 2012, the two companies had partnered to explore what role a patients’ genomes played in their response to Genetech’s cancer drug, Avastin.

For other illnesses like inflammatory bowel diseases, the answer may be outside our own genomes and inside those of the microbes inhabiting us. That’s the working hypothesis of Larry Smarr, director of the California Institute for Telecommunications and Information Technology, who not only has had snippets of own DNA sequenced but also keeps stool samples on ice to better understand how his gut bacteria interacts with his genome. Smarr, who diagnosed his Crohn’s disease ahead of his doctor this way, believes we will one day recall swathes of the general public for genetic screening in much the same way automakers now recall models with defective parts.

“I can imagine that occasionally, as a new DNA segment is related to some disease, people with that DNA signature will be called in for ‘preventive maintenance,’ ” Smarr told The Atlantic.

When that happens, how will we treat them? Individualised gene therapy has been touted as the next frontier in medicine since the success of the Human Genome Project 15 years ago. But, effective one-to-one medicines have proven elusive. “Synthetic biologist” Andrew Hessel hopes to buck that trend with his Pink Army Cooperative, a biotech start-up funded by breast cancer patients that aims to use specially designed viruses, rather than drugs, to deliver treatments tailored to each patient’s genome. If Hessel has his way, the gap between diagnosis and treatment will shrink to almost nothing—the doctor will prepare your viral therapy while you wait.

This post first appeared on GE LookAhead. Publication does not imply endorsement of views by the World Economic Forum.

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Author: Greg Lindsay is a contributor to GE LookAhead.

Image: A DNA double helix is seen in an undated artist’s illustration. REUTERS/National Human Genome Research Institute.

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