New Genome Tech May Pave Way for Personalized Meds

April 16, 2008

James D. Watson, the co-discoverer of DNA's structure, is now the second person in the world to have his whole genome sequenced.

But he's the first to have it done with a next-generation technique that took a mere two months to complete and cost "only" a million U.S. dollars—a figure that might drop to $2,000 within six years, one expert predicts.

The hope for many is that cheaper sequencing will help medicine become personalized, so that people can receive drugs or adjust their lifestyles according to their particular genetic makeups.

The first personal genome sequencing—done for genetics pioneer Craig Venter—was completed in stages as part of a project by Venter's company to create an "average" human genome.

Observers estimate that Venter's genome took years to decode and cost anywhere from $70 million to $100 million.

"Watson is the first of the rest of us," said Jonathan Rothberg, founder of 454 Life Sciences, who invented the new technique that sequenced Watson's genome.

In general the cost of genome sequencing is dropping fast. Some researchers say that in several years the technology may be affordable for most of the public.

"It will become as ubiquitous as [medical] imaging," such as x-rays or MRI scans, Rothberg predicts.

Great Diversity

In research that will appear in tomorrow's issue of the journal Nature, Rothberg and colleagues show that Watson's genome was similar to Venter's in many ways.

This suggests that the new sequencing method is as reliable as older, more costly techniques.

For example, Watson's genome—the full "book" of base pairs that make up a person's genetic code—has about 3.3 million single nucleotide polymorphisms, or SNPs (pronounced "snips").

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