I.B.M. Seeking to Make Sequencing of Personal Genome Available for the Low Low Price of $1,000 (Plus Millions in Royalties to Patent Holders)

Jake Meyer by Jake Meyer

I.B.M. recently announced its plans to join the race to sequence the genome for $1,000.  I.B.M. joins seventeen other companies in the race to sequence the gene.  Currently the cost to sequence the human genome ranges between $5,000 and $50,000, but these companies are yet to successfully sequence the entire genome of an individual.  I.B.M. hopes to ultimately bring the price as low as $100 to sequence an individual's entire genome.  The goal is to build a machine that can sequence an individual's genome – three billion base pairs – in several hours.  This will provide the genetic information needed by an individual for personalized diagnostic and treatment uses. 

I.B.M. is using its expertise in semiconductor manufacturing, computing, and material science to design a gene sequencer with increased speed and accuracy.  I.B.M.'s sequencer revolves around a nanoscale electric device.  The device uses an electric field to pull the DNA strand through a 3 nanometer hole in a surface, at which point the electric field holds the DNA in place for a fraction of a second while the order of the nucleotide bases (adenine, guanine, cytosine, or thymine) is determined.  After the nucleotide bases are determined, the DNA strand is pulled further through the hole and the order of the next nucleotide bases are determined.

Personalized medicine will use DNA data from an individual's genome to make diagnosis and treatment tailored to an individual.  Having DNA data of an individual will help determine a patient's predisposition to a particular disease or condition and will allow for the discovery and testing of new products.  Drugs will be able to be calibrated to a person's specific genetics.  Personalized medicine has been said to be the "wave of the future."  If I.B.M. (or another company) is successful in sequencing the genome for $1,000, personalized medicine could become a reality. 

Gene patents, however, have the potential to make personalized medicine much more expensive than the cost of sequencing an individual’s genome.  Many companies have raced to secure patents on human genes. A 2005 study estimated that 20% of the human genome is patented.  These patents allow the patent holders to charge whatever they wish in royalties.  When you consider that there are 30,000 genes in the human body, the cost in royalties to sequence one person's genome could quickly become prohibitively expensive.  For example, if the entire genome of 30,000 genes could be sequenced for $1000, adding royalty costs of $100 per gene would make the cost an unaffordable $3,001,000.  So while we may be approaching a time when we can sequence an individual's genome for pocket change, gene patents may be a breakwall to this wave of the future.

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