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X games for scientists offers $10m top prize

Competition set up to find quicker, cheaper way to analyze DNA for new field of personalized medicine

Email|Print| Text size + By Robert Weisman
Globe Staff / December 4, 2007

The slow evolution of personalized medicine is getting a nudge from a Brookline technology impresario with $10 million in prize money.

Serial entrepreneur Marc Hodosh, 34, senior director of the Archon Genomics X Prize, is looking for a faster and cheaper way to analyze DNA so people have a better chance of fighting off diseases. He's offering to give the money away to the first team of researchers that can accurately map the genetic codes of 100 people in 10 days for a cost of $10,000 or less per genome - a feat many in the medical field think may not be technically viable for years.

"I've got $10 million, and if someone can do it tomorrow, it's theirs," Hodosh said. "I'd be happy to put myself out of a job."

Organizers of the contest hope to jump-start the field of individualized medicine, which promises to prevent or combat diseases like cancer or diabetes by better understanding a person's DNA. If all goes according to plan, the genomic-sequencing machinery and technology assembled in competing for the X Prize will be the infrastructure around which a multibillion-dollar industry is built. That industry would include companies that process an individual's gene map quickly and cheaply and others that customize drugs and treatments.

Today, one of the pioneers in genomic sequencing will take up the challenge.

Harvard Medical School genetics professor George Church, 53, who helped originate the Human Genome Project, is set to announce he will lead a team that will compete for the X Prize. Church said he hopes his Personal Genome X team, vying with five rivals from both sides of the Atlantic, will accomplish the task in 2008.

"We're looking to raise consciousness so that everyone sees the benefits of this research," said Church, a proponent of "cooperative biology" who nonetheless conceded the contest is "something that gets the juices flowing" in his Church Lab at the medical school.

"If it happens in Massachusetts, it's going to help a lot of companies and individuals here in the state," Church predicted.

The competition was launched late last year by the nonprofit X Prize Foundation of Santa Monica, Calif., which also has sponsored races to build commercial spacecraft and fuel-efficient cars.

But it picked up momentum with the hiring last March of Hodosh, the Segway-driving founder of several consumer and technology start-ups who also runs the annual FIRST Robotics regional competition in Boston. Hodosh is promoting the $10 million prize, donated by Stewart Blusson of Archon Minerals Ltd. in Vancouver, with the marketing flair he has used to plug the high-school robotics event.

Among other things, he's tapped personalities like talk show host Larry King, scientist Stephen Hawking, and Microsoft Corp. cofounder Paul Allen to have their genomes mapped by the winning X Prize team. "It's a way to involve the public," Hodosh said. "We want people talking about this around the water cooler, like the Red Sox."

Hodosh also enlisted a friend, Apple Inc. cofounder Steve Wozniak, to help spread the word about the Genomics X Prize in the high-tech world and beyond. "The competition brings it to the forefront as a major challenge," Wozniak said, citing the potential public health benefits. "This is technology that will probably be commonplace in 10 to 20 years, but it's just at the outer reaches of the state of the art now."

Since the human genome was decoded in 2000 from a compilation of different people's DNA, a goal of the genomic research community has been to sequence an individual's genome in one day for about $1,000, a sum small enough to be covered by health insurance.

Last spring, private labs for the first time sequenced the genomes of two individuals: Nobel laureate Thomas Watson, codiscoverer of the DNA double helix, and J. Craig Venter, the Celera Genomics founder who is an adviser for the Archon X Prize advisory panel. But the process remains long and expensive. Roche's 454 Life Sciences, the company that sequenced Watson's genome, took about a month and spend nearly $1 million to complete the work.

Each of the teams registered for the X Prize is taking its own approach to developing new technology that can speed up, and bring down the cost of, sequencing a human genome. A single genome consists of roughly 6 billion "base pairs," nucleotides that sit on opposite ends of DNA and RNA strands and have to be identified in the process.

"If you could give people a road map of themselves and their personal history, the value would be extraordinary," said businessman and inventor Dean Kamen, a trustee of the X Prize Foundation and creator of the Segway personal transporter that Hodosh can be seen riding around the Longwood Medical Area and MIT.

Before today, five teams had registered to compete for the Genomics X Prize: 454 Life Sciences in Branford, Conn.; Reveo Inc. of Elmsford, N.Y.; VisiGen Biotechnologies Inc. of Houston; the Foundation for Applied Molecular Evolution in Gainesville, Fla.; and Base4innovation Ltd. in England.

The largest corporate competitor, 454 Life Sciences, is moving its sequencing process onto a microchip where it can be accelerated in digital form. "We have a technology that we believe has the scalability needed to win," said Brendon Hill, 454 manager of global marketing. "It would be a great validation of our efforts."

Church's team, consisting of about 20 engineers and technicians at his Church Lab in Harvard Medical School and other labs around the world, plans to line up about 200 of their customized genome-sequencing machines somewhere in the Boston area to handle massive volumes of sequencing simultaneously. The team is also using "open source" hardware and software, posting their specifications online for public inspection. "I don't want to put pressure on my team," Church said. "But I think we're really close or we wouldn't be entering."

When a team is ready to try sequencing 100 genomes within 10 days during one of two annual "windows" in January or July, it will notify Hodosh and the X Prize staff. The staff will then dispatch independent judges to monitor the attempt.

"There's a lot of talk about personalized medicine," Hodosh said. "But to get there, we're going to have to be able to do rapid and cost-effective genome sequencing. And for that, we're going to need a new technology. People are going to remember who did this."

Robert Weisman can be reached at weisman@globe.com.

BIOHUB Read special Globe coverage of biotech in Boston at boston.com/business.

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