* Companies are beating down price of genetic sequencing
* Genomics is fast emerging as a weapon against cancer
* Several genomics companies appear set for prime time
By Maggie Fox, Julie Steenhuysen and Ben Hirschler
WASHINGTON/CHICAGO/LONDON, March 30 (Reuters ) - Francis
Collins, who helped map the human genome, did not get around to
having his own genes analyzed until last summer. And he was
surprised by what he learned.
Collins has a predisposition for type-2 diabetes, something
he had never suspected. The lanky, former director of the
National Human Genome Research Institute (NHGRI) discovered
this through tests offered by Navigenics, 23andMe and DecodeMe
-- companies that charge customers a few hundred dollars for a
peek at their genetic makeup.
"I signed up for all three because I wanted to see if they
gave the same answer," he said. "They all agreed my diabetes
risk is higher."
Armed with that information, he eventually lost 25 pounds.
But as a rule, he doesn't consider such tests especially useful
-- at least not yet. "Admittedly, right now your family history
may be your best bet and it doesn't cost anything," he said.
And so it goes in the fledgling genome field.
Some experts say the world is on the cusp of a "golden age"
of genomics, when a look at the DNA code will reveal your risk
of cancer, diabetes or heart disease, and predict which drugs
will work for you. Yet the $3 billion international Human
Genome Project, whose first phase was completed a decade ago,
has not led to a single blockbuster diagnosis or product.
To be sure, there have been some tantalizing glimpses:
-- A personalized blood test can tell whether a patient's
cancer has spread or come back. Dr. Bert Vogelstein of Johns
Hopkins University in Baltimore and colleagues found stretches
of DNA in colon and breast tumors with extra DNA copies, or
-- A gene-based test called Oncotype DX made by Genomic
Health Inc (GHDX.O) helps identify breast cancer patients who
are not likely to benefit at all from chemotherapy.
-- Dr. James Lupski of the Baylor College of Medicine in
Houston studied his own entire DNA map and sequenced the
genomes of family members -- including his deceased grandfather
-- to diagnose the mutation causing his rare genetic nerve
disease, called Charcot-Marie-Tooth syndrome.
-- Genetic tests are now able to pick out poor responders
to Plavix, or clopidogrel, a common life-saving anticlotting
drug made by Sanofi-Aventis SA (SASY.PA) and Bristol-Myers
Squibb Co (BMY.N).
Still, Collins describes this as low-hanging fruit. He says
the hard work is only just beginning.
In a sense, the field is a victim of its own success.
Companies are beating down the price of genetic sequencing,
competing to make the machine that every biotech lab will have
as standard equipment to sequence a person's entire genome on
the spot. But all this genome sequencing is creating what
current NHGRI director Dr. Eric Green calls a "tsunami of
information" that is overloading the brains of scientists and
the capacity of computers.
Paradoxically, this reflects the fact that people have
relatively few actual genes, the stretches of DNA that instruct
a cell to make a protein, or what Green refers to as "bricks
and mortar." Humans have just 20,500 of them, compared with up
to 30,000 for mice and 50,000 in rice. That was one of the big
surprises from the Human Genome Project.
As a result, much of the most important information lies in
what used to be called "junk DNA," which makes up two-thirds of
the human genetic code.
"There is this dark matter of the genome that is lurking
out there, waiting to be uncovered," says Collins.