When the CEO of a local biotech company saw actress Glenn Close at a party, he asked for more than her autograph. He wanted to take a peek at her DNA.
Jay Flatley, who runs Illumina, hoped to take an in-depth look at the three billion ladder rungs that make up a strand of Close’s DNA. This analysis, called genome sequencing, would tell the Fatal Attraction star about her genetic risk of developing disease. In return, her participation would give Illumina major attention.
Close said yes, and Illumina scored in the genome-sequencing publicity sweepstakes — but not for long. Three months after Illumina announced its Close connection in March, a competitor, Carlsbad’s Life Technologies, countered with a celebrity of its own. It would sequence the DNA of rocker Ozzy Osbourne, who joked the results might explain why he’s still alive after biting off a bat’s head and enduring years of drug use.
This isn’t the first case of one-upmanship between the two companies. They’ve been going after each other for a decade in a chase for a monumental prize: They each want to be the first to sequence a person’s entire genome for $1,000, a feat that could usher in big changes in medical treatment.
A decade ago, in contrast, it cost $300 million to sequence a genome.
What does Hollywood have to do with it? It’s not just about attracting attention and investors, although Illumima’s stock price hit its highest level in five months after it announced its arrangement with Close. Shaf Yousaf, the head of market development for Life Technologies, said he hopes the celebrity-induced exposure will help the public feel more comfortable with the genome-sequencing concept.
“The public tends to be suspicious of DNA-based improvements, like genetic testing and genetically modified crops,” he said.
Critics say the public has reason to be skeptical of the former. Doctors and government regulators worry that people taking genetic tests on their own won’t understand their results and may get bad news about their medical fates without any counseling or perspective.
Existing genetic tests, which can be bought online for as little as a few hundred dollars, only look at a few key locations in a person’s DNA and provide insight into a person’s risk of developing a small number of diseases.
While genetic tests are like the CliffsNotes to a genome, genetic sequencing tests are the full book, providing the order of every ladder rung in a person’s DNA. This information will help doctors look for genetic diseases like Alzheimer’s that are caused by multiple mutations on a DNA strand. In the future, the technology could also help doctors sequence cancer tumors to find their specific weaknesses and customize drugs for a patient’s unique genetic makeup.
Flatley, the Illumina CEO, said the company will require a doctor’s prescription for genome sequencing. The company will return the results to the doctor to explain the findings to the patient.
First, though, genome sequencing must become widely available. And that means cutting costs.
“For a decade or more, the $1,000 genome has been held as a benchmark for accessibility,” said Dr. Edward McCabe, co-director of the Center for Society and Genetics at the University of California, Los Angeles, in an email.
Reaching that $1,000 cost would allow genome sequencing to be “utilized broadly by the medical community and would be affordable to most patients,” McCabe said.
Illumina and Life Technologies are among a handful of companies across the country involved in a tit-for-tat war over how close they’re getting to that holy grail. On Jan. 12, Illumina said it could perform a full sequencing for under $10,000. Fifteen days later, Life Technologies announced that it could do it for around $6,000.
Meanwhile, Complete Genomics, based in Northern California, says it can do the job for under $5,000. Its genome sequencing is done entirely in-house, which cuts costs.
There’s another twist: The nonprofit X Prize Foundation has offered $10 million to the first company to sequence 100 human genomes in 10 days. But the real reward companies are seeking is market domination, said Daniel Weeks, a professor of human genetics and biostatistics at the University of Pittsburgh, who’s not involved in the nonprofit.
Who will win? It’s hard to tell. There’s little difference between the sequencing methods used by Life Technologies and Illumina. They involve things like how the companies store their DNA samples while they run them through their machines and how many of the DNA ladder rungs are read at a time.
Both companies say their technologies are three to five years away from crossing the $1,000 finish line. Even if they get there, they may have to keep on racing.
“I think the reward will be transient as a competitor will quickly achieve the $750 genome, then the $500 genome,” UCLA’s McCabe said.
For now, however, only a few hundred people have had their entire genome sequenced.
Close hasn’t received her final results yet, her publicist said. When she does, her DNA could provide information on her likelihood to develop mental illnesses that run in her family like schizophrenia and bipolar disorder.
For Ozzy Osbourne, the pending results may tell him more about a genetic condition he has, which causes the same body shakes as Parkinson’s disease.
However, the results won’t be able to predict his medical future with 100 percent accuracy, since his genetic makeup doesn’t know about the choices he’s made in life. Since Osbourne has the same DNA he was born with, it hasn’t been affected by his drug use.
The impact of his bat eating, then, will likely remain a mystery.
Please contact Claire Trageser directly at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow her on Twitter: twitter.com/clairetrageser.