The people who spurred private spaceflight with a $10 million prize are doing the same for personalized medicine. The X Prize Foundation is offering $10 million to the first company that can process the genetic codes of 100 people in just 10 days — an advancement that experts say is still at least five years away.
“We need new and better technology to get down the road to individualized medicine,” said genome mapping pioneer J. Craig Venter, co-chair of the Archon X Prize scientific advisory board. The prize is funded by a $12.8 million gift from Stewart Blusson of Archon Minerals Ltd., a Canadian diamond exploration firm.
The idea is that one day doctors will be able to treat patients based on their individual genetic makeup. The big prize is an effort to jump-start the technology to quickly sequence individual gene maps.
To win the prize, a company has to map in 10 days a specific 100 diverse human genomes provided by the X Prize Foundation. Then it will be paid extra to map the genomes of 100 celebrities, scientists and multimillionaires, said X Prize Chairman Peter Diamandis.
The lists include talk show host Larry King, financial heavyweights Paul Allen and Michael Milken, space tourist Anousheh Ansari who financed the space X Prize, space X Prize winner Burt Rutan and scientist Stephen Hawking.
The nonprofit foundation is promoting its contest with a “quintessential American method,” said Penn State University bioethicist Arthur Caplan. “They’re using showmanship, marketing, appeals to the culture of celebrity to get it done.”
Many genomic companies have long been working toward sequencing a person’s genome in just one day and cutting the cost to $1,000 or less so it can be covered by health insurance. Susan Hardin, president of VisiGen Biotechnologies Inc. of Houston, one of three teams already registered in the competition, figures it will take about seven years before that goal can be reached. Her company has been working on its method since 2000.
Francis Collins, director of the National Human Genome Research Institute, said in 1990 it cost about $10 to sequence one base pair in the 6 billion base pair human genome. Now the cost is down to one-tenth of a cent per base pair and that cost is cut in half every 22 months, he said. But to reach the goal and the X Prize, it’ll take a cost reduction factor of 1,000 more than the current price, he said.
But more affordable and prevalent genome mapping raises all sorts of ethical issues, especially privacy ones, Collins said. Because the U.S. House of Representatives refuses to pass a proposed law that would prevent discrimination based on what’s in a person’s genetic code, Collins — who completed the first human genome map in 2000 along with Venter — said he would think twice about having his genome sequenced. Theoretically, Collins said, a genome map could prevent him, or his children, from getting health insurance.
Venter has already had his genome mapped.