Google, Microsoft May Help Usher in Personalized Medicine Wave, Says George Church

5/12/09Follow @xconomy

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about what the consequences might be.

X: How might this work? With something like the $5,000 genome being proposed by Complete Genomics, does an individual go in to the doctor, get one of these sequences done, and dump all the results into Microsoft HealthVault or Google Health?

GC: That’s exactly right. And if you do a partial genome, it already costs even less than that. Very, very quickly—surprisingly quickly—people will be getting this data and they will want to put it together with all their other health records. Whether it’s separate or together, they’ll be able to share both, because it will be there sitting on their disk drive at home. It’s just a matter of condensing them so there’s benefit to them, their family, and to society.

X: How do you do that?

GC: We’re trying many different strategies. Ranging from 23andme, which gets people interested in social networking, family ancestry, and medicine in an educational format. That’s one experiment. Another one is the Personal Genome Project, which really has had a remarkable response. We just opened [a new phase of the project] on DNA Day, April 25, and we’ve already got 11,000 volunteers [for 100 slots]. That could easily grow and flower in unexpected ways that we’ve seen happen with various Internet phenomena like Facebook, Wikipedia, all sorts of crowdsourcing phenomena. We’ll keep trying experiments until we get one that hits. It’s extremely important.

Unlike most science, where you can buy your chemical and go into your dark room and work on it, this is something that has to have a vibrant, exciting interface with the public, or else you have nothing to work on.

X: You said before you were worried that not enough people will participate. How many people do you need to participate to create a really meaningful pool of data for people like you to run queries against it?

GC: We’re approved by our Institutional Review Board to do 100,000. I think lots of interesting things will happen before that. Lots of interesting things will happen at 100 or 1,000 people, or 10,000 people—every factor of 10. But more is better. If we got 1 billion people, that would we be way better than 100,000.

It’s such uncharted territory, we really don’t know what kind of good experiences and bad experiences people might have. But if a lot of people report good experiences, and they can see it percolate in society, then it will really take off. It may not require the usual kinds of markets and establishment support, in the same way that Wikipedia didn’t really require the usual kinds of financial returns. It became cheap enough that an occasional donation of time and money was adequate.

X: What’s your personal experience been like? Your genome has been out there in the public domain … Next Page »

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