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Your Genome: There's an App for That

By Jack M. Germain
Aug 3, 2009 6:00 AM PT

Don't look now, but we may be about to enter the genome-based economy.

Your Genome: There's an App for That

Soon, having a personalized analysis of your human genomes will be as commonplace as taking an IQ test in school. You could carry a specially-tuned smartphone able to scan the UPC (universal product code) of any clothing or food substance you buy.

These new inventions, what Dr. Andras Pellionisz calls your "Personal Genome Assistant," or PGA, will ferret out substances that are toxic to the one or more conditions mapped in your personalized genome report. Pellionisz is founder of HolGenTech.

Pellionisz has already proven the concept of the PGA with several working models that scan supermarket UPC codes. His firm also produces genome reports for customers bent on fostering help for their health issues.

Lest you think that Pellionisz is off by himself in left field, know that several other companies are already deeply involved in applying modern genomic knowledge into useful applications. One such firm is 23andMe, which provides customers with detailed genome summaries of their lineage. Also, let's not forget the instant fame that befell genome researcher George Church when he sold on eBay his Knowme genome computer and genome sequencing package at auction for US$68,000.

"The benefits will revolutionize healthcare and disease prevention in years to come," Pellionisz told TechNewsWorld.

Genome Primer

Every organism has a genome loaded with all the biological information needed to build and maintain a living example of that organism, according to the National Center for Biotechnology Information.

This biological information stored in a genome is encoded in its deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) and is divided into discrete units called "genes." Genes code for proteins that attach to the genome at the appropriate positions and switch on a series of reactions called "gene expression," according to the NCBI.

The U.S. government began the Human Genome Project in late 1980s under the sponsorship of the NIH (National Institutes of Health); it took 13 years and $3 billion to complete, said Pellionisz.

A New View

In Pellionisz's perspective, that was a lot of money spent for very incomplete results. The Human Genome Project identified only 30,000 genes.

"The project missed 110,000 genes," he said, referencing the latest gene research.

A new era of research into genomes started in 2003. This marked what Pellionisz called "hologenomics." The newer ENCODE project, which took four years, changed some of the conventional thinking in the scientific community. Unlike the Genome Project, the newer research took $160 million to complete. Its results were surprising, according to Pellionisz.

No Junk DNA

So-called junk DNA represents a sizable portion of the DNA sequence of a genome. Longstanding opinion has held that so-called junk DNA is just that -- junk. Recent research, however, suggests that some junk DNA may have a job after all.

Long-held beliefs may need re-working. For some 50 years the paradigm has been that DNA only moves in one direction -- from DNA to RNA to protein, explained Pellionisz.

"Current thinking is that the DNA you were born with is the DNA you die with and nothing such as food or diseases can change it," he suggested.

Some estimates hold that junk code is responsible for more than 150,000 diseases. Recursion and junk DNA comes into vital play. DNA can be effected and changed. This gives new hope, and new cause for investments.

Platform for Health

New ideas about the true role of so-called junk DNA is fostering a keen awareness among both the scientific world and health-conscious customers of new businesses offering a sort of genome counseling.

For instance, the company headed by Pellionisz, HolGentech, sells a full genomic analyzer for $US5,000. Sales initially are limited to 10,000 devices per year. It takes two to three weeks for each genome assessment, noted Pellionisz.

The PGA scan device is tuned to the specific results of the customer's genome analysis. Is that too hefty a price to pay for better insight into one's health? Or is the shortage contrived to drive up the demand?

"Limited supplies and higher selling price are typical for any industry developing new technology. A genome computer will be much faster at processing the analysis," Pellionisz said, noting that the prices will drop as momentum builds.

Machine Control

Today, direct-to-customers genome testing companies such as 23andME rely on Illumina/Affymetrix microarray technology to analyze up to 1.6 million SNiP-s (single nucleotide polymorphism and point mutations of the 6.2 billion A,C,T,G letters/amino acid bases of human DNA). Meanwhile, the field of genomics is waiting for the next developments in nano-sequencing technology. This holds the promise of affordable and readily available personal genome analysis by the end of 2009.

23andMe provides detailed analysis in a genome report on a customer's DNA. The company has no devices to help customers apply the information they learn about their DNA, but the analysis often provides more information and insight into a person's health risks. This forms the basis for enlightened change.

In some cases, the customers can apply the information to make more informed choices about the way they live. In other cases the genome analysis reinforces what customers already knew or suspected, given their family heritage, according to Esther Dyson, a director on the board of 23andMe.

"It's like having a novel written in French, but you only speak English. You can't read it, but you have the book," she told TechNewsWorld.

The company used to offer the genome analysis for $1,000. Now that price is $399, the result of a larger customer base now, according to Dyson.

Device World

Pellionisz debuted a consumer applications for personal genomes functioning with an Android-based smartphone at the inaugural Consumer Genetics Show in Boston last spring. Later that same day, Illumina's CEO Jay Flatley featured a different business model application for personal genomes for the iPhone.

Using the Android device's built-in barcode reader, Pellionisz demonstrated how personal genome computing can detect genome-friendly and genome-supportive products, from foods to cosmetics to building materials. In the demonstration, the device user was assumed to have a genomic proclivity to Parkinson's Disease.

The demonstration leveraged the handset's barcode reader to capture product information. It used a product rating scale to identify any product's prevention efficacy. These demonstrations of personal genome handheld device applications could well be the tip of a future genomic iceberg.

The use of such devices, Pellionisz said, can affect individual choices and create new awareness and understanding of how the world around us impacts the one within us. The personal genome accessed via handheld applications could present new insights to the near-term future.

Super G Computer

The development of less costly genome computers is also part of this platform for a genome-based economy.

"We look to chipmakers -- Intel, AMD, Xilinx, and Altera -- and to integrators like HP, Dell, DRC and even IT giants like Google and Microsoft, for next developments in parallel processing to produce HPC (handheld PC), desktop and server lines as the IT infrastructure of the genome based economy," said Pellionisz.

HolGenTech software, using some open source but mostly proprietary code, ported to parallel processors will yield several hundred-fold acceleration, Pellionisz claimed. This will lead to the ability to fine-comb a person's genome.

Sound Business

The potential for fertile business opportunity for companies that participate in the genome economy is strong. However, like any business, an element of risk is involved.

"The World Wide Web was unexpectedly easy. A few people had Internet access but didn't do much with it. In one year ... it all went from zero to millions. Other things take longer. For instance, The Apple I computer left people wondering what to do with it. Apple sold millions of its Apple II computer," George Church, creator of the Knowme genome computer, told TechNewsWorld.

However, vendors already providing genome-related services are seeing growing interest in the field, said both Dyson and Church. The same can be said for investors in these companies.

Investors like to wrap their hands around new products. They are often attracted to being among the first to back a new product concept. This will appeal to those investors with a widget mentality, noted Church.

"If an investor can't see himself using the device, he probably won't invest in it," he concluded.

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