New Tech. Makes Sequencing Easy

Within a few years, mapping out your own genetic code may be as easy as developing film and may cost no more than purchasing a laptop.

Led by Medical School genetics professor George M. Church, the Personal Genome Project aims to find a process that makes gene sequencing as affordable as $1,000.

Last week, Church announced his entrance into the Archon X PRIZE for Genomics competition, which will award $10 million to the first team that maps 100 people’s genomes for under $10,000 per person in 10 days or less. And monetary gain is not the only inspiration for the project—the technique may allow for more personalized medical treatments.

Church, who was involved in the Human Genome Project—which deciphered the human DNA sequence for the first time, is trying to downsize and increase the accessibility of the process researchers used in the 1980s and 1990s.

“It’s a combination of hardware, software, and wetware—the way film used to be,” Church said. “You’d take a picture with your camera. You’d have the film developed at a centralized facility, and it would come back to you.”

In the process, the possibility of providing access to genetic information at an affordable price is drawing closer and closer.

“The positive implications would be that hopefully down the line, you would be able to tailor medicine much more specifically to the needs of individuals,” said Bodo M. Stern, director of research affairs at the Faculty of Arts and Sciences’ Center for Systems Biology.

If everyone could sequence their own genome, they would know if they were susceptible to certain diseases, and take certain preventative measures, including screenings and diet changes, said Xiaole Shirley Liu, an assistant professor of biostatistics at the School of Public Health.

Liu offered the example of cancer. “It takes multiple mutations to get cancer. If you find out that you have a few mutations already accumulated, it is not sure that you will get the additional mutation to get cancer, but you are more susceptible,” Liu said. “So these people can be more cautious in terms of cancer prevention or early detection.”

And this concept can be applied to other diseases as well. “We’re not talking about one particular narrow disease, but a way for a doctor to look at a whole person as a whole person,” Church said.

“What George Church is doing is great,” Liu said. “Any advancement in genomic research will ultimately benefit health.”

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