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$10 million offered for gene-mapping feat

The foundation that inspired a private-sector race to space announced a new $10 million prize Wednesday — this time to inspire a race to sequence the human genetic map faster and cheaper.
X Prize Foundation Announces Prize For Mapping Genomes
Dignitaries watch a video during a news briefing to announce the $10 million Archon Genomics X Prize. From left are Francis Collins, director of the National Human Genome Research Institute; former U.S. Rep. Billy Tauzin; Craig Venter, chairman and CEO of the J. Craig Venter Institute; Anousheh Ansari, first female private space explorer and backer of the $10 million Ansari X Prize for private spaceflight; and Stewart Blusson of Archon Minerals, who is contributing the genomics prize money.Alex Wong / Getty Images
/ Source: staff and news service reports

The foundation that inspired a private-sector race to space announced a new $10 million prize Wednesday — this time to inspire a race to sequence the human genetic map faster and cheaper.

Although scientists have mapped one person’s genome — through both public and private efforts — it was time-consuming and expensive. The X Prize Foundation wants to inspire someone to map 100 different human genomes in just 10 days.

And just to spice things up, it is offering another $1 million if the team can decode the genomes of 100 more people, including some celebrities and wealthy donors such as physicist Stephen Hawking, talk-show host Larry King, Google co-founder Larry Page and Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen. (Microsoft is a partner along with NBC Universal in the joint venture.)

The effort could speed the era of personal genomics — in which each person’s propensity to disease, response to drugs, and other tendencies are individually mapped, said Dr. Francis Collins, director of the National Human Genome Research Institute. His institute is already working on ways to do this.

Next frontiers
The X Prize Foundation sponsored a $10 million prize to try to fuel a commercial race to space, and in 2004 aviation pioneer Burt Rutan won the cash with SpaceShipOne, a piloted rocket plane that flew into space twice in one week.

“Rapid genome sequencing is widely regarded as the next great frontier for science and will eventually allow doctors to determine an individual’s susceptibility to disease and even genetic links to cancer,” the foundation said. This prize will be called the Archon Genomics X Prize.

“I think someone will win this prize. I don’t think they’ll win it next week,” said Collins.

Collins’ institute spent 10 years and $300 million decoding the human genome. It got into its own race with Craig Venter, the brash founder of Celera Genomics, who did it with private funding but still spent $100 million and took nine months to do it. Eventually, Venter teamed up with the government scientists to publish a full genome map in 2001.

Will geeks inherit the earth?
Venter had offered a $500,000 prize to someone who could do it more cheaply. He is now giving that money to the X Prize Foundation, and is serving on the foundation's board as well.

“It’s like geeks are taking over the world,” Venter said in an interview. “Who thought a scientists could get $10 million for coming up with a breakthrough technology?”

The money for the Archon Genomics X Prize is coming from Canadian millionaire geologist Stewart Blusson, president of Archon Minerals Ltd., said Ian Murphy, a spokesman for the foundation. Archon's principal business is diamond exploration in Canada's Northwest Territories.

"He is one of these people who's just hell-bent on exploration," Murphy told, "and in addition he's a very quiet philanthropist."

The $10 million would be paid out only in the event that someone satisfied the terms of the prize competition within the next seven years. The X Prize Foundation has the option to extend that seven-year term, Murphy said. He said Blusson has pledged an additional $2.8 million to cover the cost of administering the prize.

Collins estimated that in order to win the prize, the genome-mapping operation would cost close to $20 million. That's in line with the precedent set during the spaceflight X Prize, when Allen spent in excess of $25 million to support SpaceShipOne's prize-winning effort.

With the help of private companies that have entered the business of making automated gene sequencing machines, Collins said the cost and time needed to make a gene map has fallen steadily. “This maybe will speed it up even further,” Collins said in an interview.

“If we do it, we have to fix this problem of (genetic) discrimination,” he added. Congress is working on a bill to make it illegal for employers or insurers to use someone’s genetic information against them.

Celebrities lend support
Several celebrities lent their support to the project.

“You may know that I am suffering from what is known as Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis, or Lou Gehrig’s disease, which is thought to have a genetic component to its origin,” said Stephen Hawking of Britain’s Cambridge University, a leading physicist who has written several popular books, including “A Brief History of Time.”

“This 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,” Hawking, who is almost completely paralyzed, said in a statement.

Murphy said Hawking was among the people on the "Genome 100" who could have their genetic code deciphered by the prize-winning team for the bonus $1 million. Allen, Page, King, Ansari and Rutan were also on the list, along with foundation donors as well as patients suffering from genetic diseases, Murphy said. The $1 million would be paid out by the foundation.

This report includes information from Reuters and