Remember when personal computers, the Internet, and smartphones didn’t even exist? In reality, that wasn’t so long ago.
Just think for a moment about the scope and pace of the digital revolution.
In the early 1970s, computers were large monoliths that cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. Even the few so-called minicomputers that surfaced had price tags in the tens of thousands. The idea that the average person would own a desktop computer was considered far-fetched.
But then, in the span of about 50 years, we’ve gone from mainframes to personal computers to smartphones. We’ve seen everything from the dawn of the Internet and the advent of social media to the onset of the Internet of Things (IoT) and machine learning and AI. Today, nearly every aspect of our personal lives is intertwined with such technologies—from buying groceries online and Instagramming our pets and food to remotely controlling our home thermostats and enlisting help from Siri.
That’s how powerful scientific and technological innovation, decreasing costs, and consumer adoption can be.
Truly mind-boggling, isn’t it?
Now let’s think about the scope and pace of the genomics revolution.
In 2003, after 15 years and $3 billion, the Human Genome Project (HGP-Read) completed sequencing the first human genome ever, launching the Era of the Read-Only Genome. By 2007, the cost of that technology, aka Whole Genome Sequencing (WGS), had dropped to about $300,000—a price more accessible to big-time researchers than to average consumers. New companies started surfacing to fill the need for genome interpretation software and services, still with a hefty price tag and fairly cumbersome processes. But by 2012, monumental price drops and streamlined methodologies enabled the UK to launch the 100,000 Genomes Project and Illumina to announce a $5,000 individual WGS service.
The Era of the Read-Write Genome really took off with the emergence of the gene editing tool CRISPR (Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats) led by Veritas Co-founder George Church and scientists Zhang, Doudna, Jinek, and Charpentier. In 2013, the Church and Zhang labs applied CRISPR to edit DNA in human cells, allowing genetic material to be added, removed, or altered. In 2016, The Genome Project-Write (GP-Write) launched with a focus on synthesizing human genomes.
That same year, Veritas Genetics (that’s us!) broke the $1,000 barrier for Whole Genome Sequencing for consumers and physicians, paving the way for a true inflection point in the marketplace. When our November 2018 limited $199 myGenome offer sold out at 1,000 kits in less than six hours, it proved that consumer demand for WGS is real and that price is a key stumbling block. That game-changer steeled our resolve to sequence 1 million genomes by 2021.
Think about that. We’re envisioning a giant leap from the sequencing of 1 human genome to the sequencing of 1 million in less than 20 years.
But that escalation is about far more than achieving a numerical milestone.
It’s about a steady progression from the Era of the Read-Only Genome—sequencing and reading human genomes to reveal health insights, like disease risk and pharmaceutical sensitivities—to the Era of the Read-Write Genome—editing and synthesizing human genomes to prevent disease.
It’s about a seismic shift from the ‘hoard data and sell to pharma’ approach of some consumer genomics companies to the ‘open science’ approach Veritas supports. Through the latter, information is standardized and federated to enable the true realization of the promise of the genome, while respecting all privacy and security protocols. Already, the scale and speed of that data aggregation is astounding. For instance, data in the Arvados open-source software platform created by Curoverse has tripled in the last year to more than 20 petabytes.
Once again, scientific and technological innovation, decreasing costs, and consumer adoption are driving a revolution of great consequence. And similar to debates about the implications of high-tech developments like AI, the next phase of genomics will inevitably entail controversy and critical questions—presumably some of the most important and difficult debates we’ve ever faced.
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We’re coining that next phase the Era of the Social Genome, and we anticipate the turning point to usher it in will be the convergence of a WGS service in the $100-$200 range and consumer adoption reaching 1 million.
But what do we mean by the ‘Era of the Social Genome’?
Let’s start with what we don’t mean. We don’t mean outgoing and gregarious genomes, or ones that become active on Facebook or Twitter.
We’re talking about the ubiquitous integration of your personal genomic information into key aspects of everyday life—healthcare, nutrition, and exercise; social interactions; finances; and business—coupled with the increased application of genetic engineering and synthetic biology. What we know today about genetics comes mostly from studying sub-populations with specific diseases, identifying common genetic variations and then comparing an individual to those data. As consumer adoption increases to hundreds of thousands and millions and we integrate genomic data with other biomedical information we will exponentially increase our learning as a society and impact on the individual level.
Here are just some of the ways we see the Era of the Social Genome unfolding:
“Whole Genome Sequencing will replace all genetic tests, because it is all genetic tests and much, much more.” – George Church, Veritas co-founder & genomics pioneer
Genotyping-based tests (like 23andMe) will be supplanted completely by WGS because of the differences that make WGS far more comprehensive and meaningful, such as looking at your whole genome versus less than 1% of your DNA.
A predominant format and standard (like Arvados) will be adopted by research and clinical institutions—along with sequencing and interpretation companies—to store, manage, process, share, and monetize genomic data. Machine learning tools will be deployed across millions of standardized genomes.
WGS will become fully integrated into healthcare in the US, driving the evolution of the current model of generalized, reactive, treatment-oriented care further toward personalized, proactive, preventive medicine. Already, organizations like the Mayo Clinic are making make whole genome sequencing available to patients.
Every newborn in the US will be sequenced, and their genomic information used to guide their healthcare from day one.
Existing and new companies will launch consumer products and services to manage, safeguard, distribute, and monetize personal genomic information. These will include:
Health and life insurance products that take into account genetic risks.
Dating services that incorporate genetic information into “match” algorithms.
Reproductive services that include gene editing and enhancements.
Applications for platforms like Alexa, Siri, and Google Home—even Amazon Prime membership—that allow access to your genome sequencing results, related health insights, and complementary services or recommendations.
Integration of your genomic data with other “omics sciences” such as microbiomics, transcriptomics, proteomics, and metabolomics.
Straight-tech giants like Apple, Microsoft, Amazon, and Google will increasingly acquire health-tech companies despite consumer distrust .
New regulations and laws will be established to ensure consumer privacy and security, as well as equal access, and to accommodate the opportunities and risks that accompany WGS, gene editing, and synthetic biology.
That’s just scratching the surface of what’s to come. New genomic findings and applications are being discovered virtually every day, and it’s impossible to know exactly where the science will lead. Will everyone have their genomes sequenced as a matter of course? Will genetic engineering and synthetic biology be used to prevent the spread of viruses, cure cancer, or enhance human beings for space travel?
The possibilities are endless, but there’s no doubt that the Era of the Social Genome will introduce complex and profound societal issues. We believe this is a pivotal point in human history, a time for us all to become better informed and engaged in the conversations shaping the genomics revolution.
– Rodrigo Martinez, Chief Marketing & Design Officer and Mirza Cifric, Co-founder & CEO
We hope this piece triggers some important conversations. Please email us your comments or feedback. And if you want to explore related thoughts on science, medicine, technology, and design, check out the Veritas blog.