It’s nearly time. The whole human genome -- all 3 billion letters -- can be decoded for $1,000 and in just a few hours. And soon, it’ll actually make sense to include genetic scans in routine medical care. Eliza Strickland reports for IEEE Spectrum.
In some hospitals right now, cancer patients are having their genomes checked before their doctors decide on treatment. Genome scans of newborns with life-threatening problems can help doctors figure out what’s wrong before it’s too late. Researchers around the world are sequencing thousands of people with autism and diabetes, hoping to identify genetic variations specific to those conditions.
Soon, Ion Torrent’s Jonathan Rothberg says, everybody will be sequenced -- probably as infants -- and will be able to make diet, lifestyle, and medical choices based on specific information, rather than on hunches about vulnerabilities.
Knowledge of a person’s genome will allow specialists to customize medical treatments and drugs for that patient, to maximize effectiveness while minimizing side effects. A routine checkup could start with the doctor checking for “updates” to a patient’s genomic file; if medical research has turned up new data about the patient’s particular set of genes, the doctor would get an alert.
Experts have predicted that spending on genetic tests will skyrocket from about $5 billion in 2010 to as much as $25 billion in 2021.
Ion Torrent’s newest, printer-sized Ion Proton System (pictured) uses a blood sample and three disposable chips. Each chip has millions of tiny little wells, and as DNA molecules wash over them, their signals are combined into a digital readout. Most of the cost comes from the single-use chip (the chemicals used are cheap).
Since companies are only just starting to sequence individuals, “right now there’s only a handful of genes that we can tell you something about,” Rothberg explains. But if tens of thousands of people are sequenced, people five years from now will start getting statistically significant -- and medically actionable -- information.
He adds: “I do believe that genome sequencing will have as profound an effect on medicine as clean water, antibiotics, and imaging.”
Image: Ion Torrent