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I’m a Celebrity, Get My Sequence!

COMMENTARY | Two years ago, the X Prize Foundation awarded $10 million for the first sub-orbital spaceflight. Now, a new prize -- the Archon X Prize for Genomics -- has been formally established. The foundation will award a cool $10 million to the person or team that cracks the much-hyped “$1,000 Genome” threshold for affordable, personal DNA sequencing.

The prize, underwritten a multi-million dollar donation by Archon Minerals president Stewart Blusson, will go to the team that sequences the genomes of 100 people in 10 days, although unresolved for now is how complete those sequences should be. Will the bar be set at 90 percent, 99 percent, 99.9 percent, or what?

A $10 million check will get anyone’s attention, but the commercial concerns striving to perfect the next generation of sequencing technologies – 454 Life Sciences, Solexa, Applied Biosystems, Helicos, Visigen, Firebird Molecular Sciences, and others – hardly need any further incentive. The market for the successor to Sanger sequencing and automated capillary electrophoresis systems that have dominated the sequencing market for the past two decades will run into the billions of dollars.

“Genome 100”
So far, so good. But there’s a curious rider attached to the prize. On top of the $10 million, the winning team will receive a further $1 million to sequence the genomes of 100 celebrities and other chosen ones. The so-called “Genome 100” volunteers include Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, Google’s Larry Page, junk bond king Michael Milken, CNN’s Larry King, and Cambridge University astrophysicist Stephen Hawking, who have all reportedly thrown their hereditary material into the ring.

As one blogger wrote, perhaps they should call this the Y PRIZE?

So what makes this band of rich white guys so special? Some of these folks have legitimate reasons to be curious about their DNA. Milken set up a foundation after his diagnosis with prostate cancer. Ditto King and heart disease. And Hawking, author of “A Brief History of Time,” is paralyzed from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS -- Lou Gehrig’s disease), which in a minority of cases has a hereditary cause.

Indeed, Hawking said in a statement that the X Prize “and the resulting technology can help bring about an era of personalized medicine. It is my sincere hope that the Archon X Prize for Genomics can help drive breakthroughs in diseases like ALS at the same time that future X Prizes for space travel help humanity to become a galactic species."

As for the other reputed DNA donors, Allen just celebrated the completion of the Allen Brain Atlas – a 3-D gene map of the mouse brain produced by his Seattle-based brain institute. And Google’s Page (an X Prize Board trustee) has held discussions with genomic impresarios including Craig Venter and Lee Hood, although Google’s plans in this space remain closely guarded.

Ordinary People
X Prize Foundation chairman and CEO Peter Diamandis said at a press conference that he wanted to make DNA relevant to people by finding "celebrities and leaders of industry willing to do this." Does this mean we can now expect a crush of celebrities lobbying to join the genome list? After all, who could resist the lure of their own personal genome, the ultimate 21st-century fashion accessory? Paris Hilton or Tom Cruise? David Beckham or Terrell Owens?

Diamandis says reassuringly that additional members of the Genome 100 will also include “ordinary people” – presumably he means paupers lacking multi-million dollar bank accounts -- with some chosen by medical charities such as the March of Dimes. They will join a select club of sequenced human genomes headed by Craig Venter, the former Celera chief who donated his own DNA during the initial genome assembly six years ago, and James Watson, who is having his DNA unraveled by 454.

Celebrity sequencing will attract a lot of publicity for the X Prize, but it risks trivializing the significance of genomic medicine. In only the rarest cases – such as certain forms of heart disease or cancer – will trawling through an individual sequence pinpoint flaws that underlie specific medical manifestations. The implications of personal genomics require a lot more public debate than they’ve been given so far.

There is one silver lining in the Genome 100 however – the urgency that it will lend the cause of genetic privacy. At Harvard Medical School, George Church has taken great lengths to protect the anonymity of subjects volunteering for his personal genome project. By contrast, if Larry King finds his health insurance premiums soaring if any glitches in his sequence become apparent, he might have something to say about it. The latest effort to ban genetic discrimination passed the Senate unanimously, but remains tied up in the House of Representatives.

Celebrities have had a powerful influence in the halls of Congress in raising awareness of medical concerns such as breast cancer, AIDS, and stem cell research. Maybe the Genome 100 gimmick is just what proponents of genetic non-discrimination needed.

 Email Kevin Davies.


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