Group Led by Harvard’s George Church Will Bid for Genomics X Prize

12/4/07

A local group has finally thrown its hat into the ring for the $10 million Archon X Prize for Genomics, and it’s a biggie: the newly minted Personal Genome X-Team (PGx), led by genomics pioneer George Church.

Church, a Harvard Medical School professor of genetics and co-founder of companies including Cambridge, MA’s Codon Devices and Silicon Valley’s LS9, was one of the main instigators of the Human Genome Project. That project produced one sequence of the DNA of an anonymous person. But Church has been an important advocate for the idea that we all should have access to our individual genomes, and that personal, non-anonymous genome sequencing should be a quick, affordable part of research, healthcare, and our lives. For the last few years, he and his team have been pursuing that vision through what he calls the Personal Genome Project (PGP) , an effort to develop new sequencing technologies, new IT tools for interpreting genomic data, and a solid framework for considering the ethical, legal, and social issues surrounding genomics.

In a sense, the creation of the Personal Genome X-Team marks an intersection of what have been up until now parallel efforts to spur the development of personal genomics—the PGP and the Archon X Prize. The X Prize Foundation launched the its genomics competition in October, 2006, offering $10 million to the first team to sequence 100 human genomes within 10 days for less than $10,000 per genome. By way of context, the last sequencing milestone was Branford, CT-based 454‘s decoding of double-helix co-discoverer James Watson’s DNA this summer. It took a few months and a million dollars.

454 is one of the half-dozen entrants in the X Prize competition, and until now it was the closest thing the Boston area had to having a local pony in the race. I asked Xconomist Marc Hodosh, who took the reins of the competition in March, whether it was surprising that more of the area’s many genomics players hadn’t signed up. “All I can say is we’re talking to a number of people and it’s very likely you’ll see more teams in the future,” he said. “George is obviously a significant figure in our industry, and it’s an extreme pleasure to have him competing for the prize.”

For his part, Church (also an Xconomist) says via e-mail that “We are motivated to help the X Prize get some people engaged and educated earlier than otherwise would have happened. Also some corporate sponsors are more interested in the PGx than PGP and vice-versa.” Church explains that while the Personal Genome X-Team and the Personal Genome Project have an overlapping teams and a shared technical infrastructure, the two efforts have slightly different goals. PGP will aim to sequence about one percent of the DNA of each of 100,000 people (starting with 10 prominent volunteers who include Church himself and legendary venture capitalist Esther Dyson). To win the X Prize, PGx will have to sequence 98 percent of each of 100 genomes provided by the X Prize Foundation. Church says that the team will probably start with a practice run on 100 of its own volunteers. The team that takes the prize (hopefully PGx, Church says) will also have the opportunity to sequence the genomes of 100 celebrities–the likes of Richard Branson, Larry Page, and Paul Allen–who Hodosh hopes will become Lance Armstrong-like advocates for personalized medicine.

Entrants in the X Prize competition will have two window for competing each year, Hodosh says—once in January and once in July. “No attempt is likely for at least a year and a half,” he says.

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