Sequencing Seattle: An Idea for the Future of the Northwest
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I’ve already pointed out the real and immediate demands on Seattle’s budget. How can a multimillion dollar project like this get off the ground? Let’s break it down.
As I mentioned, I fully believe the sequencing of a human genome will drop to between $1,000 and $100 over the next few years. For purposes of making some back of the envelope calculations, let’s go for the middle point and say the average genome over the next five years will cost $500 per individual. Seattle has a population of approximately 616,000 people. But, we’re sequencing only those who want to have their genomes sequenced, so let’s say initial uptake is 25 percent. That means about 150,000 people, multiplied by $500, for a total cost of $75 million, just for the sequencing. The entire city budget for 2013 is $951 million. Seems like a non-starter.
But. This is where creative thinking comes in. Today globally we have a few major providers of genome sequencing services. Ask them: what can you do for us? Remember, prices are going down faster than Moore’s law. BGI or Illumina might be willing to cut a low deal, not just for the business, but for the privilege of being involved. Or maybe a new player gets involved. The promise of having hundreds of thousands of genomes to process might spur a Covance or other outfit to make a huge investment in these technologies.
What if the genome sequencing is backloaded like a bad ARod contract, so the bulk happens in years 3-5, with the first couple of years devoted to pilots and infrastructure? Maybe the budget for the first year is just a few million to assess the possibilities, find vendors, build a business case and line up stakeholders. Maybe the second year is just $5-10 million, which by then will buy 10,000 genomes to start.
Go to Amazon and Microsoft and Google and pitch them on being involved. They know how to handle and analyze data, and might be willing to cut a deal in order to work with this kind of resource. Prioritize diversity and outreach in the initial cohorts and use that as a lever to attract the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and PATH and Seattle Biomed and other public health institutions that are trying to help people in underdeveloped countries. Information we learn about the impact of different ethnic backgrounds on health can be applied back to the populations from which our local groups originated. Indeed, one of the main drawbacks of current genomics research is the overwhelming emphasis on European-derived (*cough* white *cough*) populations.
To Sum It Up
Think of this as laying fiberoptic cables in India. As Thomas Friedman described in The World is Flat, the vast investment in infrastructure in developing countries during the dotcom boom is why you can now outsource reading your X-rays or putting together that patent application to professionals in India for a fraction of the cost of doing it locally. Sequencing in and of itself is not the point; building a vast reservoir of data and encouraging a culture of innovation to do something with it is. And doing it now. This idea is already being talked up with larger organizations, such as the United Kingdom’s NICE (even if they may not be going about it the right way). Seattle has the opportunity to do it the right way, and if we wait until everyone else is also doing it, there’s not much advantage to that.
Think of this also as a call to arms. I see sequencing as the logical tool to keep our area vibrant and growing, but that’s because I’m a genome scientist. Ask someone in 3D printing and she might say Seattle should buy everyone a 3D printer (hey!…) The point is, the future of a city, more than ever, depends not on its natural resources and history, but rather on the quality and creativity of the thinking that happens there. What gets quality and creativity going are visions of the future that inspire.