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Genetic Research

Genetic study spurs an unusual contest

12 years ago

908  0
Posted on Oct 18, 2006, 11 a.m. By Bill Freeman

Are the rich and famous really different from the rest of us, down in their genes? Time will tell. The X Prize Foundation, sponsor of a widely noted 2004 award for developing a reusable rocket suitable for private space travel, says it is now teaming with a wealthy Canadian geologist to offer $10 million to any team that can completely decode the genes of 100 people in 10 days.
Are the rich and famous really different from the rest of us, down in their genes?

Time will tell. The X Prize Foundation, sponsor of a widely noted 2004 award for developing a reusable rocket suitable for private space travel, says it is now teaming with a wealthy Canadian geologist to offer $10 million to any team that can completely decode the genes of 100 people in 10 days.

And that's not all. As an encore, the winning team will be paid $1 million more to decode another 100 people's genes, including a bevy of wealthy donors and celebrities. Already accepted for future decoding: Google Inc. co-founder Larry Page, Microsoft Corp. co-founder Paul G. Allen and former junk-bond king Michael Milken.

The idea behind the star-studded genome race is to drive public interest in DNA research and hasten the age of "personalized medicine," in which drugs and diets may be tailored to an individual's genes, says Paul Diamandis, the aerospace entrepreneur who founded the X Prize Foundation, based in Santa Monica, Calif.

Claiming the new DNA prize won't be easy. It took more than 10 years and $300 million for the public-sector international Human Genome Project to generate the first list of all human genes in 2001. That project involved DNA from several anonymous donors, and yielded an "average" human genome. Yet while the DNA of any two people is believed to be more than 99.9 percent identical, even small differences are important. Minute variations in the spelling of DNA letters throughout our genomes account for why people look different, and why some are prone to certain diseases. Although scientists often check on individual genes, they still lack any affordable way to look across a person's entire genome.

Faster, cheaper ways to decode more individuals' DNA could have a huge impact on health care. If patients knew their genetic makeup, doctors could help them decide what medicines to take or to determine what diseases they are at risk for. And databases teeming with genetic code could speed the search for new treatments.

Mr. Diamandis says the second batch of 100 volunteers, known as the "Genome 100," will be chosen and announced over time and will include ordinary people as well as celebrities. He says several disease-oriented groups, including the March of Dimes, will be permitted to nominate people with specific diseases to have their DNA deciphered in hopes of discovering the genetic roots of those illnesses. As for the group including Messrs. Page, Allen and Milken, Mr. Diamandis says his aim is to make DNA "relevant to people" and one way is "to find celebrities and leaders of industry willing to do this."

Foundation officials said other well-known people had agreed to be decoded, including physicist Stephen Hawking and television personality Larry King. In an email, Dr. Hawking's office praised the project. A representative for Mr. King couldn't be reached late Tuesday to confirm his participation.

In all cases, volunteers will be able to decide whether their DNA is made public or kept private, according to the foundation. The DNA code data will likely prove useful, particularly as time moves on. Already, some companies offer genetic tests to track ancestors or determine susceptibility to diseases such as breast cancer. However, the meaning of most genes has yet to be understood.

Currently, the market for DNA-sequencing machines and chemicals needed to run them is about $925 million annually. The devices are commonly used in medical research, as well as in forensic applications such as paternity tests.

While prices for DNA sequencing have fallen rapidly over the years, the basic chemistry used in the devices, known as Sanger sequencing, has not changed in two decades. That means reading a person's entire genetic code, which consists of six billion DNA letters arranged on 46 chromosomes, is still too expensive to undertake routinely.

To claim the prize, researchers or companies will have to invent entirely new techniques. The decision to make teams decode 100 genomes in 10 days was reached after discussions with leading researchers, who felt the goal, while difficult, would be reachable within five years.

The X Prize funds are expected to feed what is already intense commercial competition for developing faster and cheaper ways to read DNA. Venture capitalists have formed a raft of companies investing in new, speedier techniques.

The U.S. National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Md., has awarded more than $71 million since 2003 for next-generation sequencing instruments, and said its goal is to ultimately lower the cost of decoding a person's DNA to around $1,000.

Some technology companies are already seeking to decode human genomes as a way to highlight their wares. For instance, 454 Life Sciences, a Connecticut biotechnology company that is marketing a new type of DNA sequencing machine, is studying the genes of James Watson, the scientist who co-discovered the structure of the DNA molecule. For now, the work is very laborious. "Doing a human is not a minor project," says Chris McLeod, 454's chief executive.

Despite the increased public and private funding, the X Prize Foundation's Mr. Diamandis says a cash purse still has a place. It will "attract teams from outside the stovepipe" who may make unexpected breakthroughs, he says.

The prize is also expected to draw huge media attention. The previous space award, claimed by Mr. Allen's SpaceShip One, generated 5.5 billion "media impressions" valued at more than $120 million in advertising, according to Ian Murphy, a communications official with the foundation. "We are going to spotlight the competitors and turn them into heroes," says Mr. Diamandis.

The $10 million purse is being put up by Stewart Blusson, a Canadian geologist involved in discovering a trove of diamonds south of the Arctic Circle in 1991. He is funding the prize because of a love for science and "out-of-the-box thinking."

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