Editor’s note: The economic downturn and frozen IPO market have been especially tough on health care companies. But that doesn’t mean innovation has slowed across the board. Clifford Reid, chief executive of genome sequencing company Complete Genomics, discusses the financial concerns and direction of one of the most buzzed about life science sectors. This article appeared first in VentureBeat.
MOUNTAIN VIEW, Calif. – Genetics are no longer the mystery they once were. Regular people can now have their genomes read to determine their susceptibility to illnesses like diabetes, breast cancer and Alzheimer’s disease. This has given them unprecedented power to take preventative steps.
But the real revolution in personalized medicine is yet to come. The day we begin aggregating and analyzing data across large numbers of genomes in earnest is the day we will be able to expose the genetic underpinnings of humanity’s most complex diseases.
My company, , is working to make large-scale genome studies a reality. With the proper sequencing tools at their disposal, biopharmaceutical firms and research institutions will be able to advance diagnostics, drug discovery and clinical trials by years if not decades. In turn, this will lead to the creation of better, more personalized therapies and treatment strategies.
Overcoming the financial hurdle
We know that many chronic and terminal illnesses have a genetic basis, but we’ve only just scratched the surface of potential genetic solutions. The medical need is definitely there — yet the expense of sequencing a large number of genomes remains a major limiting factor.
The promise of personalized medicine is that we will soon be able to cut directly to the underlying cause of diseases instead of treating their symptomatic forms. At that point, we will be able to develop the most effective therapies possible with the fewest side effects. And the sooner we identify these therapies, the sooner we can get them to market.
But we can’t deliver on this promise until the cost of genetic sequencing drops significantly. Currently, efforts to unlock and analyze the massive volume of data in the human genome require significant capital investment in both sequencing instruments and high-performance computing equipment — not to mention highly trained and specialized staff.
Several companies are hard at work to lower the price point of sequencing. Complete Genomics, for one, is combining biochemical techniques and DNA nanotechnology to dramatically slash the volumes and concentrations of reagents needed for required processes. These breakthroughs will allow the company to offer its sequencing services at $5,000 per genome by the middle of next year.
Applying genomics to real-world medicine
Studying an individual genome involves the close examination of each of its genes, as well as how they interact with each other and their surrounding environments. This is such a complex process that fewer than 20 human genomes have been sequenced in the entire scientific community to date. By contrast, the large-scale genomic studies that I am talking about would be capable of comparing the full genomes of up to 1,000 people with a certain disease against those of 1,000 people without it. Researchers would then be able to highlight key differences and similarities between the two to determine how the disease develops and spreads.
The same tactic could also be used to demonstrate how patients sharing the same disease differ from one another when it comes to drug absorption, metabolism, tumor type and so on. For example, researchers could use genomic tests to distinguish between various cancer subtypes that react differently to chemotherapy. With this information in hand, doctors could begin to tailor treatment plans to individuals.
Genetic information could also be used to minimize adverse effects. If, for instance, only some participants in a clinical trial experienced bad side effects, a technician could check their genetic profiles to break down why reactions occurred and devise ways to avoid them the next time.
A growing market
The field of personalized genomics has generated a lot of buzz over the past several years — it seems to hold such amazing potential. Yet there’s still a dearth of published genomic data out there in the field. There’s still so much waiting to be gathered, analyzed and applied.
The government continues to fund projects in this area, like the Cancer Genome Atlas, and nonprofits like the J. Craig Venter Institute are making progress. But the time is right for genomic analysis to move into the commercial sector. More than ever, large pharmaceutical companies are interested in developing targeted treatments and integrating DNA information into clinical trials. There are a lot of opportunities there to make money.
On top of that, the implications of DNA sequencing cut across many different markets — clinical trial optimization, toxicology studies, oncology and diagnostics, just to name a few.
As just one example, Complete Genomics plans to have the ability to sequence up to 20,000 genomes per year for paying customers. And as the price tag on personal genome sequencing shrinks, it will be used increasingly in regular clinical settings, upping demand and offering even more opportunities for commercialization.
About the author: Clifford Reid is chairman, president and chief executive of Complete Genomics. Previously, he founded two software companies: Verity, a text search engine, and Eloquent, a digital video communications company. Both eventually went public before being acquired.