The $1,000 Genome is Coming: How Will It Change the World?

5/21/09Follow @xconomy

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the barriers to adoption remain high.

One of those big barriers will be educating an entire generation of physicians to think about personalized genetics, and wellness, rather than reactively treating illness, Hood said. He didn’t sound optimistic about this. “In essence, many physicians do not like to learn new things,” he said. Younger physicians who get trained “after the revolution has come” will offer a greater opportunity to usher in personalized medicine, he said.

Then there’s another big question of the politics. Irv Weissman stepped into that arena by pointing out—to a roomful of capitalists—that the masses will not submit to wide scale, deeply penetrating genetic screening unless a policy is put in place that says insurers can’t drop their health insurance if the test discovers something bad. “Until the U.S. gets universal health care, this will be held back dramatically,” he said.

Hood didn’t seem to want to go that far. He pointed out the U.S. now has the Genetic Information Non-Discrimination Act on the books, which took 10 years to get through Congress. “It’s not perfect, but it’s a big first step,” Hood said.

Carl Weissman, who didn’t appear to share his dad’s view on universal health care, then started probing with further questions. Who will pay for the $1,000 genome screens? Who will own the data? What parts will be revealed? Will babies get genomes screened at birth, or earlier? What happens when genomic data reveals far greater detail into worrisome health conditions in a developing fetus?

Nobody stepped straight into all of those questions. They will inevitably fire up religious and cultural debates about abortion and stem cells. But the data that will raise these questions is definitely coming, whether we’re ready or not, the scientists said.

“I think it will be a fundamental part of your medical record, I suspect it will be required,” Hood said, because genomic data will be valuable in promoting wellness. He noted that privacy and security of this data is “an enormously big challenge” and that he’s working on it now with computer security experts at the University of Luxembourg, as part of the ISB’s partnership with the small European country.

Big policy decisions over the next year, like whether the U.S. goes toward universal access to healthcare, will probably be the big landscape-altering theme up for discussion at next year’s OVP Tech Summit, Carl Weissman surmised.

But before wrapping up, Perry Fell, the chairman of Seattle-based Nanostring Technologies, wondered if universal health care access will provide “a floor that people can not fall below.” He also wondered out loud whether it will still allow room for a profit motive to drive innovation in healthcare.

Nobody really had the answer to that one, but Hood gave it a shot.

“There are lots of big problems in the world now,” Hood said, citing healthcare, energy, nutrition, and food. To start thinking about solving them, he said, “We really have to think about how we fund discovery that’s never going to be done by industry. Most funding is based on a history of small science. The problems that we are talking about can’t be touched by this.”

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  • Bob

    $1,000 genome = more expensive tests that we do not need… = lots of false positives (it is, after all, probabilistic).

    A better approach:
    keep older drugs, make them better by a $10 or a $1 genome test.

    Also, I remember a grand announcement from the late 70′s/early 80′s that the invention of the genome sequencer would change the world and drug development… It is 30 years later now…

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