Low-cost DNA decoding machine developed

Seen as an exceptional advance that can change medicine, the "$1,000 genome" is just around the corner.

    The new genome-sequencing machine is 1,000 times more powerful than existing technology [Reuters]

    A biotechnology company says it has developed a machine that will decode a person's DNA in a day for $1,000.

    That price has long been cited as a key step toward making a person's genome useful for medical care.

    Life Technologies Corp. said on Tuesday it was taking orders for the technology, which it expects to deliver in about a year. The company says three major research institutions had already signed up for the $149,000 machine.

    Technically speaking the machine is a sequencer. That means it can identify the sequence of the 3 billion chemical building blocks that make up a person's DNA.

    The machine is 1,000 times more powerful than existing technology, said Jonathan Rothberg,  CEO and chairman of Life Technologies.

    Taking up about as much space as an office printer, it can sequence an entire genome in a single day rather than six to eight weeks required only a few years ago.

    Ethical minefield 

    The new sequencer, says cardiologist Eric Topol, chief academic officer of private California hospital and doctor network Scripps Health, "represents an exceptional advance and can change medicine."

    Other scientists and physicians, however, say it could lead to widespread whole-genome sequencing even of people who are not ill. And that raises ethical, legal, and medical issues that experts are only beginning to grapple with.

    "I'm a big proponent of bringing genetics into the clinic," says Thomas Quertermous, chief of the division of cardiovascular medicine at Stanford University and an expert in the genetics of heart disease. "But it has to be done in a timely way, and not before its time."

    Babies might be first in line for whole-genome sequencing.

    In the US, for instance, newborns are required to be screened for at least 29 genetic diseases. "If the cost of whole-genome sequencing gets sufficiently low, you could sequence all the genes in a newborn" for less than the individual tests and follow-ups required when one comes back positive, said Richard Lifton, chairman of the genetics department at Yale University.

    "I'm increasingly confident that's going to happen. But we need to be careful how we utilize this information. Do you tell a new-born’s parents his apoE status" -- that is, whether he has the form of a gene that raises the risk of Alzheimer's disease?

    Access to DNA data by insurers and employers could also raise new problems.

    Lifton foresees a "zero-dollar genome," making it likely that "we will just do it as part of routine clinical care" for children and adults.

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera and agencies


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