Sequencing Seattle: An Idea for the Future of the Northwest

4/3/13

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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.

Kyle Serikawa works as a Senior Research Scientist in Genomics for Novo Nordisk. He is a recent graduate and current board member for Leadership Tomorrow in Seattle. The views expressed on this post are his and do not necessarily reflect the views of Novo Nordisk. Follow @

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  • Me

    I think it’s an excellent idea. A few caveats, though, and one warning. One of the caveats is that many of the benefits of sequencing a large population will be reaped by the world as a whole, and not particularly by the Seatlleites (is that the word? Are children there ‘microseattleites’ – I digress). This is of course no bad thing and will boost Seattle’s profile, but beware of assuming a tight linkage between local outlay and local returns in a project like this. In particular, the sequencing (and analysis) will only be a small part of the outlay if an aim is to feed back into healthcare for the local community.

    Another caveat, at least from the perspective of improving the understanding of genome/phenome links, is that the best data won’t necessarily come from sequencing one community. On the other hand, the idea of “sequencing Seattle” is an attractive and accessible one, far more so than (say) phenotype-targetted national or international programs.

    Finally, a warning would be that each new round of technology has its day and its big projects, only to be superseded when the next technology comes along. Few people can now remember much about the big SNP surveys, for example, which were going to give us rich data and answer all questions. And where are all those CEPH families now? The same will happen with whole genome sequencing – it will be superseded by massively parallel surveys that include methylation or chromatin patterning in respect to gene expression; or it will be realized that the most stubborn genome-based problems are accessible only in the context of somatic variation; or something will come along that we haven’t yet dreamt of.

    But, as a rallying cry, “sequence Seattle” isn’t a bad starting point.

  • LJStewartTweet

    Great Idea. Seattle has the big data crunchers and sharing mentality to make this a reality. And also people could donate their brain’s to research in case of death too.

  • Kyle Serikawa

    Those are excellent caveats, and its true there’s no guarantee that most or even a majority of benefits would accrue specifically to Seattle. As I think about this, however, I

  • Kyle Serikawa

    (whoops, clicked too soon) hope the benefit would come from building an integrated public/private partnership that would allow everyone to make progress faster and better, which would provide a long term business and social benefit advantage to Seattle. Application builders would interact closely with both producers and users of the genetic information to create more efficiently. I’d also hope that as new technologies arise, people will keep up with them, and if we can continue to attract good people to our area, that probability goes up. When we talk about the key attributes of knowledge workers in the 21st century, I think the most important one will be adaptability.