The Genome War, Round Two.
Venter versus Collins (again) and the Race for Precision Medicine in the Petabyte Era.
The Precision Medicine Initiative announced by President Obama in his 2015 State of the Union Address has created quite a stir, with the overall tone being increased optimism for what lies ahead in personalized medicine. The driving force behind this enormous undertaking appears to be Dr. Francis Collins, Director of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), who also led the US Government’s effort in the human genome sequencing project.
Collins outlined further details of the government’s precision medicine initiative in a NEJM article, including details on The White House’s $215 million fund earmarked for the project as well as information on the “cohort of a million or more volunteers to propel understanding of health and disease.”
What many people don’t know, however, is that Dr. Craig Venter, the other pioneer of the first human genome sequencing effort, announced last year when he raised $70 million to found Human Longevity Inc. (HLI). HLI’s goal is to sequence 1 million human genomes by 2020.
Take two separate initiatives battling it out for the title of master of genomic knowledge, mix in a presidential decree for a precision medicine initiative, and you have a recipe for international intrigue (and hopefully progress) in the world of scientific and medical research.
This isn’t the first genome war, however.
Let’s look back to June 2000, when the world’s largest ever science project was completed — the Human Genome Project. It was a massive undertaking and cost nearly $3 billion dollars; many saw this as the beginning of a new era of personalized medicine.
The original battle came to the public’s attention in May 1998, when the Institute for Genomic Research’s director Craig Venter announced his plans to map the human genome via his newly formed private company, Celera (the Latin word for ‘speed’). The NIH was at the same time attempting to map the human genome with an expected completion date 15 years away. Venter’s announcement caused a not-so-surprising acceleration of research activity by the government-funded genome teams, led by the National Human Genome Research Institute’s Francis Collins. The gauntlet had been dropped. Whichever party was first to finish mapping the human genome stood to transform the future of medicine. (This battle was portrayed in James Shreeve’s book “The Genome War”)
This original genome war ended quite gracefully, in a tie of sorts, when both Collins and Venter gathered with President Clinton in The East Room of the White House and jointly announced the completion of the first draft sequence of the entire human genome.
Fast forward to 2015 and it’s Venter versus Collins again. With Venter’s HLI already putting to work their $70 million, and Collins charting his course to deploy the $215 million from the government initiative, the stage appears to be set, in a big way, for round two in the genome war. And like last time, it’s private funding versus federal dollars, this time sequencing not one but one million genomes.
Off to the Races.
It turns out that competition in genomics research can be a very good thing. Round one in the genome battle sped up genetics research by several years. Round two is already underway, and Venter’s HLI appears to have a significant lead once again, having already sequenced “several thousand” genomes thanks to their recently installed Illumina X Ten sequencer (a.k.a. the $1000 genome machine). Venter previously outlined plans to ramp up to 100,000 genomes per year.
Which team will prevail remains to be determined. What is the utlimate prize? As with the original genome war, the potential outcome of these parallel initiatives seems quite positive for society as a whole: genomic knowledge for the advancement of science, and betterment of our collective health. Will these efforts unexpectedly converge and unify once again? For now, we wait and see. With $70 million in private investor funding in the hands of Venter’s HLI, epitome of both efficiency and free enterprise, versus a potentially much slower moving governmental $215 million. Both with the ultimate goal of unlocking the true secrets of the code of life by sequencing the DNA of one million individuals.