The 21st century cure is inside you

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Nik Thapa, Columnist

 

Officially started in 1990, the Human Genome Project sought to identify and map the human genome –the complete set of DNA within our cells.

With an estimated cost of $3 billion, the DNA sequencing project was given a timeframe of 15 years to complete. Through international collaboration with leading scientists and institutions of the field, the project went on to sequence over 90 percent of the human genome by 2003, costing roughly $2.7 billion.

What took hundreds of scientists over a decade to accomplish can now be completed today for a few thousand dollars, in a fraction of the time. Researchers have come a long way in this field, but I think increased government funding towards research would be extremely beneficial.

A myriad of biotechnology companies have sprung up, each with new methods and technologies claiming to be able to  sequence an individual’s complete genome with high accuracy.

Unlike the Human Genome Project, a majority of these companies only sequence known regions of variation within your genome. Meaning, they sequence areas of predicted or known differences between individuals. In fact, by most estimates, approximately 99.5 percent of our DNA is the same. The rest varies from person to person, including how they respond to medications and what kind of risk factors they carry for certain diseases.

One particular sequencing service that at one point gained traction and popularity is the genomics company 23andMe. Founded in 2006, this company originally disclosed health and ancestry information after sequencing through a saliva kit.

Back in February, 23andMe received FDA approval to test for a specific genetic disorder, Bloom Syndrome, just before announcing that they planned to create drugs based on their database of DNA sequences.

After several incidents of customers discovering that they were adopted or other family tree secrets, the company now requires users to opt in for such information. Furthermore, 23andMe is no longer allowed to market its products after failing to secure approval from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for the selling of what they consider medical devices.

For a time, it looked bleak for personal genomics, as the FDA struggled to keep up with uncharted territory. In his 2015 State of the Union address, President Obama announced a new healthcare program to fund this genomic approach to medicine, termed the Precision Medicine Initiative.

Through this program, the president hopes to promote the increasing trend of personalized medicine. This would lead to a new healthcare approach in which treatments are tailored to individuals through information gleaned from genomics, resulting in more targeted and effective treatments.

The plan includes requesting $215 million from Congress to allocate towards research. The majority would go to the National Institutes of Health and other governmental health agencies including the National Cancer Institute and the FDA. Thankfully, the program has been met with bipartisan support in Washington as policymakers work to restructure the American healthcare system.

Still, I believe that the Precision Medicine Initiative would benefit from requesting more money. In an economy in which it costs roughly $2.5 billion to bring a new drug to market, $215 million is, to say the least, a drop in the bucket.

Just last month, Budget Committee Republicans denied an amendment to increase NIH funding by $51 billion over the next 10 years. As he closes in on the end of his term, the President could afford to take a more aggressive approach to healthcare reform, including this new initiative.

I agree that the program is an important first step in what will be the future of both genomics and healthcare.