The Promise and Peril of the Mass-Market Genomehttp://www.fool.com/investing/high-growth/2012/01/11/the-promise-and-peril-of-the-mass-market-genome.aspx Alex Planes
January 11, 2012
The relentless march of genome sequencing technology continued this week, right on target. When I wrote about the race to the $1,000 genome late last year, I had no idea that the two largest sequencing companies would so soon unveil machines capable of offering just that, but I knew it was coming. Now that it's here, what does it mean for the future of medicine -- and the future of the planet? More than you might think.
The day the walls came down
Since Life Tech's announcement so closely conforms to my earlier projections, let's revisit them, and this time I'll stretch the cost curve out all the way to the end of the decade:
Sources: National Human Genome Research Institute and author's calculations.
Race to the bottom
The positive picture
One clear benefit to broader understanding is better drug targeting. Amgen and Pfizer's (NYSE: PFE ) Enbrel costs $26,000 a year, yet only benefits half the arthritis sufferers taking it. Knowing a patient's unique genomic variations could help identify why they don't respond to certain drugs, leading to smarter prescriptions. It's also likely to lead to more efficient drug research and development, but this is more contingent on the availability of large genomic databases. That would help companies like Pfizer that face a looming patent cliff.
The NIH's 2020 predictions reference genetic analysis at nearly every possible opportunity. On the back of better genetic knowledge, they claim, we'll be able to:
All this, incredibly, was predicted in 1999. The directors responsible for these predictions would have known only a very immature technology -- the first full, individual human genome wasn't sequenced by J. Craig Venter's Human Genome project until 2007. Now, the numbers say that a full genome sequenced in 2020 will cost somewhere between nothing and the price of a convenience store hot dog. Will sequencing become that cheap? I don't think so -- but it will be cheap enough to force us to answer some difficult questions.
The measure of a man
We can sequence one person's genome and identify risk factors that may make him more likely to get cancer or heart disease, but still can't deal with these problems much past healthy-living preventive measures. Say your prayers and eat your vitamins, so to speak. If you got a full genome screening today, it would probably reveal 200,000 individualized variations that have never been seen before. A Life Tech sequencing of one person turned up almost 4 million single-base (half of a base pair) variations. That's a lot of unknowns.
Let's say we cut total processing time to a few minutes. It's certainly possible. Algorithmic performance is in many cases far outpacing the advance of its underlying technology. One model that could have been solved in 82 years beginning in 1988 was later solvable, in 2003, in one minute. This 43-million-fold improvement was attributed to a thousand-fold increase in processing power and a 43,000-fold improvement in the algorithms used. An algorithmi