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Startup joins list looking to cash in on the genome

As scientists unwrap the mysteries of the human genome, companies are piecing together ways to offer the benefits of these breakthroughs to the consumer market.
/ Source: Boston Business Journal

As scientists unwrap the mysteries of the human genome, companies are piecing together ways to offer the benefits of these breakthroughs to the consumer market.

Such companies as Houston-based Family Tree DNA offer customers the chance to map their genomes in order to discover ancestral roots. Last month, noted Harvard University professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. partnered with Family Tree to launch -- a DNA mapping service exclusively for African-Americans.

Now a local startup is taking it a step -- or more precisely a few billion steps -- further. Cambridge-based Knome Inc., which unveiled last week, is the first company to offer whole genome sequencing to individuals.

The genome contains all of biological data that make up life.

Though other companies offer mapping services or partial sequencing, Knome CEO Jorge Conde said his company goes much further. Competing companies offer a "rough draft of a sequence in that they pick between 600,000 and 1 million data points spread across all 6 billion bits of information that are in your genome," he said. "The (whole) sequencing, on the other hand, is where you actually read out each of the individual letters of the human genome code."

The information could provide insights into what diseases or rare disorders an individual is prone to. To date, only two individuals (that are known of, anyway) have had their entire genome sequenced, Knome said.

Knome wants to provide whole genome sequencing to consumers and then break down what the results mean as much as possible.

But if you're itching to have your genome read out and analyzed, be prepared to pay. Knome is charging $350,000 for its services, and the process would take several months.

"This would be someone who wants to be on the cutting edge of science and medicine," Conde said.

Knome, which will only take 20 customers at first and currently has none, hopes to lower the cost as technology advances, Conde said. Conde wouldn't say how many people the company employees or provide information on its funding for the company.

Companies such as Waltham-based Intelligent Bio-Systems Inc. could play a role in bringing down the cost. The company is developing technology that, by the end of 2008, it says could sequence a human genome in one day. Currently, the process takes months. The cost of the actual instrument would be between $250,000 and $350,000, and the cost of the disposable technology that needs to replaced after each sequence would be around $1,500, said Steven Gordon, president and CEO.

Gordon said the technology is mainly being developed for the research community, but he has seen an increase in consumer applications.

But is there enough of an individual interest to drive a business like Knome? That's the real question, said Fiona Murray, a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Sloan School of Management.

Personal genetics companies already exist, but Murray said growing consumer interest opens new questions and likely new debates. "What are the implications of having all that information?" she asked "And are we really equipped to understand that information well?"