IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Calif. company claims faster, cheaper gene map

A California company predicts it will soon be able to sequence an entire human gene map in four minutes, for just $1,000.
/ Source: Reuters

A California company predicts it will soon be able to sequence an entire human gene map in four minutes, for just $1,000.

Pacific Biosciences says its new gene-sequencing machines are far faster than existing equipment, and will be able to do in minutes what it took the federally funded academic effort five years and $300 million to do, and genome pioneer Craig Venter nine months to do in 2000.

“It will change health care forever if it works,” Hugh Martin, the chief executive officer of the company, said in a telephone interview on Monday.

The company presented its findings to a meeting in Florida on Saturday.

Last month Knome, a Cambridge, Massachusetts-based personal genomics company, said it was offering people their own personal genome sequences at a cost of $350,000. Martin said he saw no reason for individuals to get their gene maps sequenced yet, and said his company’s market was research labs.

“The real idea is to be able to sequence people fast enough and cheaply enough so we can turn some really interesting discovery problems in genetics and genetic diseases into software problems,” Martin said.

“You can sequence 1,000 people who exhibit addictive behavior and 1,000 who don’t and see if there any differences between them,” Martin said.

Government backers of the project are equally enthusiastic.

“In complex diseases like heart disease, there are many different genes that contribute to the disease and each of those genes has a small effect,” said Jeff Schloss, who heads the sequencing-technologies grant program at the National Human Genome Research Institute.

Needle in a haystack
Researchers still often do not even know where to begin looking for genes involved in some diseases, and so benefit from so-called genome-wide association studies, which are in effect a treasure hunt through the entire genome.

“The tools we have for understanding the relationship between changes in the genome and disease require now that we look at lots of people, that we study a lot of people who have a disease and look at changes in their genome,” said Schloss, whose institute gave Pacific Biosciences $6.7 million for its work.

Martin said the company had raised another $72 million from private investors.

The money is out there for companies that want to find cheaper and quicker ways to sequence the human gene map. In 2004, the National Institutes of Health launched a $70 million grant program to encourage such work, and the Santa Monica, California-based X Prize Foundation is offering $10 million to the first team to sequence 100 human genomes in 10 days.

Martin thinks Pacific Biosciences’ new technology will be able to get a human genome done in about 4 minutes.

“You could be on the operating table and having a biopsy while under anesthesia,” he said. Doctors could compare the sequence in a tumor to the DNA in a patient’s healthy cells and perhaps tailor chemotherapy, he said.

The company will sell the instruments at a cost of somewhere between $400,000 and $600,000, plus kits with the chemicals and other components needed to operate them.

Competitors also racing to make a faster, cheaper DNA map include Solexa, now a division of Illumina Inc, Applied Biosystems, 454 Life Sciences Corp, a Roche company, and Helicos Biosciences Corp.