Don’t look now, but we may be about to enter the genome-based economy.
Soon, having a personalized analysis of your human genomes will be ascommonplace as taking an IQ test in school. You could carry aspecially-tuned smartphone able to scan the UPC (universal product code) of anyclothing or food substance you buy.
These new inventions, what Dr. Andras Pellionisz calls your “PersonalGenome Assistant,” or PGA, will ferret out substances that are toxic tothe 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 severalworking models that scan supermarket UPC codes. His firm also producesgenome reports for customers bent on fostering help for their healthissues.
Lest you think that Pellionisz is off by himself in left field, know that several other companies are already deeply involved in applyingmodern genomic knowledge into useful applications. One such firm is 23andMe, which provides customers withdetailed genome summaries of their lineage. Also, let’s not forget theinstant fame that befell genome researcher George Church when he soldon eBay his Knowme genome computer and genome sequencing package atauction for US$68,000.
“The benefits will revolutionize healthcare and disease prevention inyears to come,” Pellionisz told TechNewsWorld.
Every organism has a genome loaded with all the biological information needed to build and maintain a livingexample of that organism, according to the National Center forBiotechnology Information.
This biological information stored in a genome is encoded in itsdeoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) and is divided into discrete units called”genes.” Genes code for proteins that attach to the genome at theappropriate positions and switch on a series of reactions called “geneexpression,” according to the NCBI.
The U.S. government began the Human Genome Project in late 1980s underthe sponsorship of the NIH (National Institutes of Health); it took 13years and $3 billion to complete, said Pellionisz.
A New View
In Pellionisz’s perspective, that was a lot of money spent for veryincomplete results. The Human Genome Project identified only 30,000genes.
“The project missed 110,000 genes,” he said, referencing the latestgene research.
A new era of research into genomes started in 2003. This marked whatPellionisz called “hologenomics.” The newer ENCODE project, whichtook four years, changed some of the conventional thinking in thescientific community. Unlike the Genome Project, the newer research took$160 million to complete. Its results were surprising, accordingto 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 some50 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 youdie with and nothing such as food or diseases can change it,” hesuggested.
Some estimates hold that junk code is responsible for more than 150,000diseases. Recursion and junk DNA comes into vital play. DNA can beeffected and changed. This gives new hope, and new cause forinvestments.
Platform for Health
New ideas about the true role of so-called junk DNA is fostering a keen awarenessamong both the scientific world and health-consciouscustomers of new businesses offering a sort of genome counseling.
For instance, the company headed by Pellionisz, HolGentech, sells a fullgenomic analyzer for $US5,000. Sales initially are limited to 10,000devices per year. It takes two to three weeks for eachgenome assessment, noted Pellionisz.
The PGA scan device is tuned to the specific results of the customer’sgenome analysis. Is that too hefty a price to pay for better insightinto one’s health? Or is the shortage contrived to drive up thedemand?
“Limited supplies and higher selling price are typical for anyindustry developing new technology. A genome computer will be muchfaster at processing the analysis,” Pellionisz said, noting that theprices will drop as momentum builds.
Today, direct-to-customers genome testing companies such as 23andME rely on Illumina/Affymetrixmicroarray technology to analyze up to 1.6 million SNiP-s (singlenucleotide polymorphism and point mutations of the 6.2 billion A,C,T,Gletters/amino acid bases of human DNA). Meanwhile, the field ofgenomics is waiting for the nextdevelopments in nano-sequencing technology. This holds the promise ofaffordable and readily available personal genome analysis by the end of 2009.
23andMe provides detailed analysis in a genome report on a customer’sDNA. The company has no devices to help customers apply theinformation they learn about their DNA, but the analysis oftenprovides 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 casesthe genome analysis reinforces what customers already knew orsuspected, given their family heritage, according to Esther Dyson, adirector on the board of 23andMe.
“It’s like having a novel written in French, but you only speakEnglish. You can’t read it, but you have the book,” she toldTechNewsWorld.
The company used to offer the genome analysis for $1,000. Now thatprice is $399, the result of a larger customer base now, according toDyson.
Pellionisz debuted a consumer applications for personalgenomes 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 adifferent business model application for personal genomes for theiPhone.
Using the Android device’s built-in barcode reader, Pellioniszdemonstrated how personal genome computing can detect genome-friendlyand genome-supportive products, from foods to cosmetics to buildingmaterials. In the demonstration, the device user was assumedto have a genomic proclivity to Parkinson’s Disease.
The demonstration leveraged the handset’s barcode reader tocapture product information. It used a product rating scale to identify anyproduct’s prevention efficacy. These demonstrations of personalgenome handheld device applications could well be the tip of a futuregenomic iceberg.
The use of such devices, Pellionisz said, can affect individualchoices and create new awareness and understanding of how the worldaround us impacts the one within us. The personal genome accessed viahandheld applications could present new insights to the near-term future.
Super G Computer
The development of less costly genome computers is also part of thisplatform for a genome-based economy.
“We look to chipmakers — Intel, AMD, Xilinx, and Altera — and tointegrators like HP, Dell, DRC and even IT giants like Google andMicrosoft, for next developments in parallel processing to produce HPC (handheld PC),desktop and server lines as the IT infrastructure of the genome basedeconomy,” said Pellionisz.
HolGenTech software, using some open source but mostly proprietarycode, ported to parallel processors will yield several hundred-foldacceleration, Pellionisz claimed. This will lead to the ability to fine-comb a person’s genome.
The potential for fertile business opportunity for companies thatparticipate in the genome economy is strong. However, like any business, anelement of risk is involved.
“The World Wide Web was unexpectedly easy. A few people had Internetaccess but didn’t do much with it. In one year … it all went fromzero to millions. Other things take longer. For instance, The Apple Icomputer left people wondering what to do with it. Apple sold millionsof its Apple II computer,” George Church, creator of the Knowme genomecomputer, told TechNewsWorld.
However, vendors already providing genome-related services are seeinggrowing 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 oftenattracted to being among the first to back a new product concept. Thiswill appeal to those investors with a widget mentality, noted Church.
“If an investor can’t see himself using the device, he probably won’tinvest in it,” he concluded.