In a session today titled Reinventing Life Sciences: Realizing the full potential of the New Biology, three speakers discussed the rapidly falling cost of sequencing genomes and what that change makes possible. The draft sequencing of the human genome was announced ten years go last month and the surrounding science has advanced rapidly since then. Personal genome sequencing is today a relatively accessible option for everyday people. Some press coverage as recent as this week indicates that the legal climate in the US may remain very chilly for individual-level genomic innovation, however.
Stephen Quake of Stanford University began the discussion at Techonomy with an exposition on the changing economy of genomics. Quake has created small commercial-scale technology for indexing genomes and was named one of Techonomy's 15 Leading Innovators for the Next Decade. Investor Brook Byers (Kliener Perkinds Caufield and Byers) and Susan Desmond-Hellmann, chancellor at UCSF, discussed the kinds of innovations they believe will be built on top of relatively cheap genomic indexing. The discussion focused on medical applications.
Key take-away quotes:
Susan Desmond-Hellmann, chancellor at UCSF
We need to transition from a disease system into a health system - what we need to do with the technology is predict the future. When we see newborn babies, I wish we knew "what should we care about with this child? What should their parents know about?" I'd start even in the womb - what are the interventions, the healthy behaviors, what are the things these children should be more aware of?
We know so much and we're going to know so much more so quickly, that everything is possible. Still, there's the cost and uncertainty of making new medicines to consider. I hope and I expect that we'll be able to tap into the concerns about healthcare cost and reform, as we go more electronic - bringing in big science so we can do more drug development within the health care system itself. The opportunity for all of us is that the closer you get to the patient themselves, that's where we can use the technology in ways that we never have before.
Brook Byers, Kliener Perkinds Caufield and Byers
In not too many years from now, there will be millions of patients linked together through social media online, with their genomes sequenced. Privacy considerations will be dealt with through opt-in and their data will be able to be viewed to whatever degree they choose by people doing research, analysis and treatment.An audience member raised concerns about privacy implications still. She said that all this techno-enthusiasm reminded her of the atomic energy research she participated in and was told would deliver unfathomable technological progress that never came.
Byers said that the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act (GINA) of 2008 went a long way towards protecting consumers. He also said it was essential that genome-based innovation remain opt-in for consumers.
Not everyone is as optimistic about the legal and legislative support for this kind of innovation, however. See very recent coverage in Xconomy, and ScienceBlogs for example. (Thanks to William Gunn for those links.)