Breakthrough could reduce cost of genetic scans from $3 billion to $100.
IBM researchers have modified a computer chip so it can be used to sequence genes in a manner that's faster and cheaper than existing methods by orders of magnitude. The breakthrough, if it can be successfully commercialized, promises personalized medicine scenarios in which doctors prescribe drugs tailored to their patients' exact genetic makeup.
The chip contains "nanopores", about 100,000 times smaller than a human hair, through which DNA strands can be fed.
The DNA's progress through the chip is halted at various intervals when an electrical field is activated. That allows a sensor to identify base chemicals, either A, G, C, or T, at each point along the strand. The process ultimately can provide a complete picture of an individual's DNA.
IBM says the invention, disclosed Tuesday, paves the way for genetic scans that cost between $100 and $1,000. By contrast, the Human Genome Project's first ever complete sequencing of the human genome cost $3 billion.
"The technologies that make reading DNA fast, cheap, and widely available have the potential to revolutionize bio-medical research and herald an era of personalized medicine," said IBM research scientist Gustavo Stolovitzky, in a statement.
"Ultimately, it could improve the quality of medical care by identifying patients who will gain the greatest benefit from a particular medicine and those who are most at risk of adverse reaction," said Stolovitzky.
IBM, however, has yet to perfect the process—meaning it could be years before the technology can be used in clinical applications. "The sensor that identifies the genetic information is the subject of intense, ongoing research," IBM said.
When it does arrive, personalized genetics could raise a host of legal and ethical issues. IBM, for its part, adopted a policy in 2005 under which it pledged not to use employees' genetic information as a screening measure.
The U.S. Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act of 2008 also prohibits employers and insurers from discriminating against individuals based on their genetic makeup.
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