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New Rules for Archon Genomics X Prize

Competition kicks off in 2013 with Medco as presenting sponsor.

By Kevin Davies

November 15, 2011 | The Archon Genomics X Prize, which offers a $10 million purse for a significant breakthrough in the whole genome sequencing of 100 genomes, has announced adjustments to its rules, criteria, and timing, as well as officially welcoming a major new sponsor—Medco Health Solutions.

The new competition will kick off on January 3, 2013, and end 30 days later. If there is no grand prize winner, the purse will be split between category winners for accuracy, completeness and haplotype phasing. “Although most races can only have one winner, we believe that after this race, the competition will benefit and entire industry,” wrote X PRIZE Foundation executives Larry Kedes and Grant Campany in a Nature Genetics commentary detailing the new rules.

Launched in 2006 to great fanfare, the original competition rules stated that entrants had to sequence 100 human genomes in ten days or less at $10,000/genome to very high accuracy. The prize was initially funded by a Canadian diamond hunter named Stewart Blusson and his wife Marilyn. Further funding was supplied by genome sequencing pioneer J. Craig Venter, who in 2003 pledged $500,000 from his foundation for a major breakthrough in next-generation sequencing.

But only eight organizations registered to compete, including 454 Life Sciences, ZS Genetics, and an offshoot of George Church’s Personal Genome Project. Some observers suggested that the stringency of the rules might have deterred groups from entering.

“I hope this is the beginning of a new race for the human genome,” said Ryan Phelan, the president and founder of DNA Direct by Medco. “Getting a medical grade genome is essential in translating the human genome into clinical practice.”

Making the Grade

In the announcement made last month, the X Prize Foundation announced several key changes to the structure of the competition.

First, the competition rules have relaxed in some cases, tightened in others. Teams will be judged on accuracy, cost, speed and completeness of genome sequencing. The organizers believe that “the competition’s audacious target criteria for accuracy and completeness of sequencing could define for the first time a ‘medical grade’ genome.”

Teams are now given 30 days to sequence the genomes of the 100 subjects, but the cost has been cut to $1,000 or less per genome, a reflection that mainstream NGS platforms are already well under the original $10,000 X PRIZE threshold. The genomes must be sequenced to an overall accuracy of 99.9999%, or no more than one error per million base pairs.

Second, the pharmacy benefits manager Medco Health Solutions, has joined as the competition’s presenting sponsor. The prize will now be known as the Archon Genomics X PRIZE presented by Medco. Medco Research Institute president Felix Frueh said that the new prize “is the game changer that’s needed to reach that final mile and transform the full promise of genomic research into practical clinical care.”

Third, the 100 genomes to be sequenced will be those of volunteering (and consented) centenarians, rather than the eclectic group of celebrities, scientists and other volunteers originally envisioned. These centenarians, or the ‘Medco 100 Over 100,’ are, in the words of the X PRIZE press release, “donating their genome to this competition in order to further medical science.”

“Our goal is to assemble an ethnically diverse group of ‘genomic pioneers’ who are at least 105 years of age,” said Campany, senior director of the genomics X prize. “Such individuals who have evaded all of the common diseases associated with aging are effectively supercontrols whose genomes deserve to be scrutinized in contrast to the genotypes of the many disease cohorts currently under investigation,” commented the editors of Nature Genetics.

The sequencing results will be compiled into a public database (such as dbGaP), raising the notion that the resulting data might help elucidate the presence of so-called ‘wellness’ genes. It should be noted, however, that several other initiatives to parse the genomes of centenarians are already underway. For example, Complete Genomics and Scripps Health announced earlier this month that they will collaborate on a project to sequence the genomes of 1,000 ‘wellderly’ individuals.

Medco’s Phelan said the company has been “driving innovation around personalized medicine for at least five years,” particularly in the area of genetic testing and pharmacogenomics. “Medco was one of the first, and is still one of the only, Fortune 500 companies, to really embrace personalized medicine to this degree,” says Phelan.

With the rapid developments in genome sequencing and interpretation, “Our sense was that we could help move the needle in this area. How could we not help usher in this new era of personalized medicine?...

“Hopefully we’ll see a big explosion in the bioinformatics, getting this information then how do we interpret it? That’s the biggest white space.”   

This article also appeared in the November-December 2011 issue of Bio-IT World magazine. Subscribe today!

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