US institutions in genomic 'arms race'

30 April 2013

Major US research and medical institutions are engaged in an ‘arms race’ to ready themselves for a genome-based assault on cancer, The New York Times (NYT) reports.

Centres are “spending and recruiting heavily” it says, in the belief that routine sequencing of every patient’s genome will soon become standard practice in medicine. In New York the Mount Sinai Medical Center, Weill Cornell Medical College and Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center have each invested millions into building new genome research centres and acquiring state-of-the-art computing power to process genomic data.

Elsewhere in the US, Harvard Medical School, Phoenix Children’s Hospital and Johns Hopkins University are prominent amongst dozens of leading institutions that have developed, or are currently developing, major centres or programmes focused around genome analysis.

Director of Harvard’s personalised medicine laboratory Peter Tonellato predicts “There will be a moment in time when whole genome sequencing becomes ubiquitous throughout healthcare”. Others however caution that we are still some way from being able to derive medically useful information from routine sequencing. “What’s the real health benefit?” asks Harvard professor and medical geneticist Robert Green, “if you’re a little bit cynical, you say, well, none, it’s foolish”.

The NYT article points out that we currently have only a patchy understanding of how genetic factors influence common disease risk. It says however that the new centres anticipate that by investing in infrastructure now – in particular for efficient collection and sequencing of patient DNA – that they will be ideally positioned to play key roles in developing new genome-based medicines, and so to profit from the huge financial returns a breakthrough drug can bring.

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