The X Prize Foundation is offering $10m to the first private team that is able to sequence 100 human genomes in just ten days. It would currently take months, at the cost of millions of dollars, to sequence an individual human genome. Francis Collins, director of the National Human Genome Research Institute, says that it will take a cost reduction factor of 1,000 of the current price. He added, 'It's not going to violate any laws of physics to get there, but it is quite a stretch'.
The Archon X-Prize for Genomics is being funded by a $12.8m gift from Stewart Blusson, of Archon Minerals Ltd, a Canadian diamond excavation firm. It is the second challenge from the X Prize Foundation, who awarded $10m in 2004 to the first team that sent a private person-carrying craft to the edge of space and back. To add to the appeal of the current challenge, the foundation has recruited celebrities, millionaires, and disease sufferers to have their genome sequenced. The list so far includes Stephen Hawking, Larry King and Anousheh Ansair, whose family funded the previous space race.
The project is set to accelerate human genome research using a 'quintessential American method', says Arthur Caplan, a bioethicist at Penn State University, US. 'They're using showmanship, marketing, appeals to the culture of celebrity to get it done'. The entire human genome sequence, the final draft of which was published in 2003, cost an estimated $3 billion, with mammalian genome projects today costing between $10-$50 million. In 2004, the US National Institutes of Health (NIH) invited proposals to develop new, cheap technologies, aimed at developing a '$1000 genome' by 2014. It also sought to fund interim research to develop a '$100,000 genome', which is thought to be achievable within five years.
It is hoped that one day doctors will be able to treat patients using methods tailored to their individual genetic make-up, and that the X-prize project will jump start the technology necessary for such 'personalised medicine'. There are already more contenders in the genome race than there were for the space flight and observers predict a sprint race to the finish. As for the timescale, Leroy Hood, a member of the X prize scientific advisory board, says he does not expect the feat to be completed within 5 years.
Doubts have been raised about the feasibility and cost of such an immense project. Michael Metzker, Baylor College of Medicine (US), has said, 'I don't think the prize money really justifies the effort'. He says the 'real prize' will be the credibility gained by the successful team in the sequencing market. The foundation has said that extra money will be awarded once the project is completed, to map the individual genomes of the celebrities and other infamous individuals who have signed up.