Jay Flatley, CEO of San Diego biotech company Illumina, has predicted that every baby will have its entire genome decoded at birth by the year 2019. Speaking to The Times newspaper last week, Flatley estimates that his company will be offering the service for as little as $1,000 within the decade, one hundredth of the current price.
Via an innocuous heel-prick blood test, a baby's genome will be computerised, from start to finish. The idea behind this is to recognise risks of developing well-studied genetic conditions, like breast cancer or cystic fibrosis, as often these are manifest as small changes in our DNA. Beginning life with such information could be of enormous benefit, claims Flatley. It would enable tailor-made drug regimens, when are drugs prescribed to suit an individual's metabolism. Prophylactic treatment might become routine. Dietary advice could also be given, for instance where a newborn shows the hallmarks of a cardiovascular disease.
When reviewing a White Paper in 2005, the British government's genetics watchdog, the Human Genetics Commission, recommended the very idea be shelved, citing disproportionate costs as the limiting factor. However the costs of sequencing technologies are now plummeting. Flatley's forecast of the price makes the idea once again feasible for both the UK's NHS, and insurance companies. So would the information gleaned from a sequence be useful? The 'applicability barrier' was once very real, as the genome was even more an enigma than it is now. Yet today, hundreds of genetic markers associated with common and rare genetic disorders are known.
Flatley concedes, however, that acceptability will always be an issue: 'The limitations are sociological; when and where people think it can be applied, the concerns people have about misinformation and the background ethics questions,' he said, adding: 'I think those are actually going to be the limits that push it out to a ten-year timeframe'.
Concerns about privacy remain legitimate. Until 2014 there exists a binding agreement that disallows insurance companies or employers from enquiring about a customer's genetic information. Whether the law will change after this date is unclear.
Times are hard in the biotech industry. Investors are loathed to gamble in a field where turnaround is slow. Drug development can take decades, and human medicines routinely fail during early-phase trials. Yet last month, Illumina announced an $18 million deal with UK-based Oxford Nanopore, to further lower its operating costs and improve accuracy.