DNA sequencing costs have already dropped by orders of magnitude and promise to drop by many more orders of magnitude in the future. (The Scientist website, free registration required - and an excellent site worth the time to register)
Sequencing costs have dropped several orders of magnitude, from $10 per finished base in 1990 to today's cost, which Green estimates at about 5 or 6 cents per base for finished sequence and about 2 to 4 cents for draft sequence. For some comparisons, draft sequence is adequate. Last spring NHGRI projected future cost at about a cent per finished base by 2005.
Although the plummeting price of sequencing is welcome, it is due to incremental improvements on the basic technology. “What we're all praying for is one of those great breakthroughs—a new technology that will allow us to read single-molecule sequences, or whatever the trick is going to be that will give us several orders of magnitude increase in speed and reduced cost,” Robertson said.
The article quotes Eric Green, scientific director of the National Human Genome Research Institute (NHGRI) that it costs about $50 million to $100 million to sequence each vertebrate species. This is an argument for spending a lot more money on basic research on the areas such as microfluidics and nanopore technology that will lead to orders of magnitude cheaper DNA sequencing technologies.
The lengthy NHGRI vision statement includes a section on dreams of future basic biotechnology advances that would be of particular value. (also see same article here)
During the course of the NHGRI's planning discussions, other ideas were raised about analogous 'technological leaps' that seem so far off as to be almost fictional but which, if they could be achieved, would revolutionize biomedical research and clinical practice.
The following is not intended to be an exhaustive list, but to provoke creative dreaming:
- the ability to determine a genotype at very low cost, allowing an association study in which 2,000 individuals could be screened with about 400,000 genetic markers for $10,000 or less;
- the ability to sequence DNA at costs that are lower by four to five orders of magnitude than the current cost, allowing a human genome to be sequenced for $1,000 or less;
- the ability to synthesize long DNA molecules at high accuracy for $0.01 per base, allowing the synthesis of gene-sized pieces of DNA of any sequence for between $10 and $10,000;
- the ability to determine the methylation status of all the DNA in a single cell; and
- the ability to monitor the state of all proteins in a single cell in a single experiment.
Methylation of DNA is used by cells to regulate gene expression. The DNA methylation pattern in a cell is part of the epigenetic state of the cell which is basically the information state of the cell outside of the primary DNA sequence. The ability to determine the methylation state of all the DNA in a cell would be incredibly valuable for understanding cell differentiation and that, in turn, would be incredibly valuable for the development of cell therapies and for the development of the ability to grow replacement organs. Plus, the ability to read DNA methylation patterns in cancer cells would be very valuable for understanding the changes that cause cells to become cancerous. Methylation pattern changes may be essential for carcinogenesis in some or all cancer types. The development of ability to reverse a methylation pattern change may eventually be useful as an anti-cancer treatment.
Speedier and cheaper bioassay technologies have a great many applications both in research and in clinical treatment. For instance, lab-on-a-chip technology promises to allow instant diagnosis of bacterial infections and more precise and lower cost choices of antibiotics to treat them.
ST's polymerase chain-reaction-on-chip system, announced at last year's Chips to Hits conference, is a good example of the type of heterogeneous integration required in this new field. The chip contains microfluidic channels and reaction chambers heated with electronic resistors. DNA samples are amplified on chip in the chambers and piped to a DNA sample array for optical analysis.
"We want to transfer the complexity of large-scale labs onto these chips and use volume manufacturing to reduce cost," LoPriore said. Once it is in volume production, the MobiDiag system will replace lab equipment costing more than $10,000 with a small-scale unit costing only a few thousand, he said.
Equally significant is the short response time of the diagnostic system. Today, a patient with an unspecified infection needs to take a broad-spectrum antibiotic until a diagnosis is obtained that allows a switch to a narrow-spectrum antibiotic. With the new system, the doctor would know immediately which pathogen to target. "This could save billions of dollars per year, just in the cost of antibiotics," LoPriore said.
A lot of press reports are dedicated to reporting various discoveries about such things as how cells work, whether some drug works, or what is the best diet. But what excites me the most are advances in instrumentation and assay technologies. With a much better set of tools all discoveries could be made much sooner and with less effort and all treatments could be developed much more rapidly.
|Share |||Randall Parker, 2003 November 19 12:12 PM Biotech Advance Rates|