'A Decade Later, Genetic Map Yields Few New Cures," said a New York Times headline in June 2010. The Times judged the project too soon.
The cost of sequencing a human genome had fallen from about $100 million in 2001 to $30,000 when the article was written; today it can be done for nearly $1,000. And the promise is coming true.
Hardly a week goes without the announcement of a major scientific breakthrough in genomics. The March 6 edition of The New England Journal of Medicine detailed how human cells can be genetically engineered to make them resistant to the virus that causes AIDS. A week earlier the journal published a finding that analyzing fetal DNA in a pregnant woman's blood was a more accurate - and less intrusive - way of screening for Down syndrome and other chromosomal disorders than methods such as ultrasound imaging and blood tests.
Genome analysis is already being used to guide the treatment of cancers of the brain and the breast.
Eric Green, director of the National Human Genome Research Institute, says that the end of the Human Genome Project was the starting point on the path to genomic medicine. At first, a decade ago, scientists focused on using DNA-sequencing and computational technologies to interpret the genome and understand its biology. Now they are using them to improve diagnostics, medicines, and clinical practice. He predicts that before long, doctors will tailor treatment for many diseases on the basis of an individual's genomic information.
The early triumphs are being seen with rare inherited diseases - which together afflict more than 25 million Americans.
We may be predisposed to certain diseases because of our genes, but it is not only genes that determine our health. It is also our lifestyle, habits and environment. These may cause genes to be switched on and off and even altered.
A lot more data are needed and much more research and analysis still needs to be done. The good news is that other technologies are also rapidly progressing which will facilitate this. With the cost of genome sequencing dropping to affordable levels, there will soon be genome data available for millions of people. Additionally, the smartphones we carry are capturing information about our lifestyle and habits, location and activity levels. Wearable medical devices, which many companies are developing, will record our vital signs such as temperature, blood oxygenation and heart rhythm. When you combine these data, you gain the ability to rapidly analyze the correlation between our genome, habits and disease - exactly what is needed to develop individualized treatments for disease.
This is the same type of data analysis that is done of social media streams and shopping and online-browsing data by Silicon Valley start-ups and marketers. In other words, we human beings have become data and software - and entrepreneurs can now do the work of pharmaceutical companies and medical research labs.
One entrepreneur has declared his intention to do just that. Craig Venter, who used Human Genome Project data to compete with the project in sequencing the first human genome, 13 years ago, recently announced that he was starting a company called Human Longevity. This will focus on extending the healthy human lifespan by using stem cell therapies and genomics to tackle the diseases of aging. No doubt many other start-ups will enter this field and accelerate the rate of medical breakthroughs. This means that medicine will, within a few years, start advancing at the same pace as the Internet and software. We will see a revolution in health care.
There is also still much more basic research to be done in genomics - that entrepreneurs can't do. Yet, the National Institutes of Health, of which the National Human Genome Research Institute is one of 27 institutes and centers, has experienced a research-funding decline of about 25 percent (in purchasing power) since the completion of the Human Genome Project in 2003. This doesn't make sense. We are finally on the verge of ridding humanity of the diseases that have plagued it. It is time to double down on, not walk away from a great investment.
Vivek Wadhwa is director of Research at Duke University, and distinguished scholar at Singularity and Emory universities. A longer version of this column was published by The Washington Post.
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