The X-Prize Foundation, a US-based organisation that seeks to foster innovation by running high profile competitions to reward novel solutions to the grand challenges of our time has launched what is reportedly the largest medical prize in history. The Archon X-Prize for Genomics, worth $10m, will be awarded to the first team of scientists to devise a form of rapid genetic sequencing that allows them to decode 100 human genomes in just ten days. The winning team will be paid to map the genetic sequences of a group of 100 celebrities, benefactors and members of the public.

Despite the massive acceleration in sequencing capacity and speed over the last fifteen years, producing a full human genome sequence still takes several months and costs in excess of a million pounds. However, faster, cheaper sequencing technologies would allow multiple different genomes to be sequenced, and a database of this information could be used to learn more about gene-environment interactions and gene-disease associations. In 2004, the US National Human Genome Research Institute (NHGRI) launched a $1000 genome project, providing funding for research intended to develop innovative sequencing technologies to reduce the costs of genome sequencing (see previous news story); the ultimate goal is to reduce the sequencing costs for a mammalian genome to just $1000, with an interim goal of $100,000. This week the NHGRI announced research awards in excess of $13.3 million as part of this initiative (see press release). If whole genome sequencing could be achieved for under $1,000 or less, it is envisaged that it could form part of routine medical assessment and potentially allow personalised health care, whereby prevention and treatment of illness could be tailored to each individual recipient. The new prize underlines further the belief in the value of affordable, rapid genome sequencing for human health and healthcare.

However, there are concerns about the privacy of genomic information, especially if it were to become more widely available, and the potential for discrimination against individuals on the basis of such information. NHGRI head Dr Francis Collins commented: "There are real questions here of the benefits versus the risks. We need appropriate protections for people, and we need the public to engage in a policy debate". It has been suggested that the Archon X-Prize for Genomics might stimulate movement of the US Genetic Non-Discrimination bill, approved by the Senate in 2005 (see previous news story) but currently stalled in the House of Representatives (see BBC news report).