Five Disruptive Biotech Ideas to Watch in the Coming Decade

1/8/10

It was a remarkable decade. There were so many advances in biotech during the first decade of the millennium that it is hard to choose the most important ones so I’d prefer to focus on five transformational biotechnologies coming in the future.

1. Who would have guessed that by the end of the decade, what took 10 years and several billion dollars to generate the first human genome sequence, could be done in a few days at roughly 10,000 times lower cost? This trend of increasing throughput and decreasing cost will continue with a number of new technologies on the horizon. Data processing and bioinformatics will become the bottleneck as the need grows to assemble and compare large numbers of genomes. Moore’s Law just can’t keep up.

2. Genome wide association studies (GWAS), the approach that scans for markers across the genomes of many individuals to spot small variations that might be associated with a particular disease, have identified only a small percentage of the underlying DNA markers linked to hereditary disease, even for common diseases that are known to run in families. With the availability of many full human sequences, the identification of rarer, and perhaps more meaningful single nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs), is in the works. Microarrays are already available with millions of SNPs. With better sequence information, the content on microarrays will improve. The next round of genome wide association studies will be conducted and we will know if the “missing heritability” can be found.

3. Cancer will be cured in some cases by sequencing genomes of tissues from cancer patients and comparing them to non-cancerous tissues from the same individual. The underlying defects in pathways will be determined by examining differences in sequence and appropriate customized treatments can then be employed. Personalized medicine will finally arrive at least for some cancers and probably for other diseases as well.

4. Developments in bioanalytical science will begin to have an impact on clinical diagnostics. There has been a revolution in imaging technology that can provide increasingly high-resolution pictures of the smallest components of the cell. These techniques are beginning to be applied to monitor living cells in real-time, albeit in laboratory environments, not inside the body. Look for these methods to advance and migrate into the clinic where label-free imaging will be conducted to identify lesions at the sub-cellular level.

5. Single molecule measurements have been all the rage the last decade, starting with fundamental physics and now moving toward biomedical research applications. Such capability will lead to more sensitive measurements of biomarkers that have not even been detected yet. The relevance of these markers to disease and wellness will start to be uncovered but don’t expect immediate clinical applications. These things take time.

While these thoughts and predictions are the most exciting from my perspective, there is no doubt that we will be disappointed in the pace of progress in some areas and surprised by discoveries and technologies that are not even contemplated right now. As we reach the end of the decade and the start of a new one, I have high hopes for the new technologies and the discoveries they will enable.

[Editor's Note: This is part of a series of posts from Xconomists and other technology leaders from around the country who are weighing in with the Top 5 innovations they've seen in their respective fields the past 10 years, or the Top 5 disruptive technologies that will impact the next decade.]

David R. Walt is the Robinson Professor of Chemistry at Tufts University, and a co-founder, director, and chairman of the scientific advisory board of San Diego-based Illumina. Follow @

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