Our Future: Making Sense of the Genome & Made-to-Order Personalized Drugs

There’s a recent Economist piece that starts with: “What physics was to the 20th century, biology will be to the 21st”. Looking at what’s brewing these days, that’s not so hard to believe, except that biology probably won’t get a whole century; there’s a good chance that in a few decades nanoscale manufacturing and artificial general intelligence will take center stage. But anyway, here are two interesting developments that showed up on my radar lately:

  • ENCODE, or the ENCyclopedia Of DNA Elements

  • The National Human Genome Research Institute (NHGRI) launched a public research consortium named ENCODE, the Encyclopedia Of DNA Elements, in September 2003, to carry out a project to identify all functional elements in the human genome sequence. The project is being conducted in three phases: a pilot project phase, a technology development phase and a planned production phase.

    The pilot phase, which had for goal the analysis of a targeted 1% of the human genome (about 30mb of data, or 500,000 base pairs), is now over and the results have been published in the June 14, 2007, issue of Nature (you can see the press release here).

    The next step is the “technology phase” which aims to investigate and develop new high throughput techniques and protocols suitable for the ENCODE project. Then there’s the final production phase which will “rigorously analyse the entire genome using the best methods and technologies identified in the first two phases”.

    I haven’t yet seen estimates of how long the ENCODE project is expected to take – maybe nobody knows at this point – but it certainly will be a huge challenge, bigger than the human genome project on which it builds.

    Links: The ENCODE Project: ENCyclopedia Of DNA Elements, UCSC ENCODE Project portal

  • Pharmaceutical companies making moves toward targeted drugs

  • pharmaceutical companies are reconsidering their pursuit of blockbuster drugs, as new technology permits the creation of niche remedies that target rare ailments or sub-populations of people suffering from common diseases.

    That explains the $3 billion hostile takeover bid announced this week by Roche, a Swiss pharmaceutical firm, for Ventana Medical Systems, an American diagnostics firm. This year, Roche has gobbled up several diagnostics and genetic-testing firms making technologies that enhance the value of its targeted cancer therapies. The firm recently completed a $155m takeover of 454 Life Sciences [the company that sequenced James Watson’s genome], which makes gene-sequencing technology and last week spent some $273m on NimbleGen, which makes technologies used in identifying the genetic causes of disease.

    Roche is being drawn away from conventional one-size-fits-all drugs partly by the allure of the lucrative new markets being created by the development of “personalised medicine”. […]

    Anthony Farino of the consultancy arm of PricewaterhouseCoopers argues that such technologies as high-throughput sequencing, genomics and personal phenotyping, which were not available five years ago, are now transforming how drugs are discovered and tested.

    Link: Beyond the blockbuster

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