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Google Backs Harvard Scientist's 100,000-Genome Quest

by John LauermanBloomberg
February 29th, 2008

George Church

A Harvard University scientist backed by Google Inc. and OrbiMed Advisors LLC plans to unlock the secrets of common diseases by decoding the DNA of 100,000 people in the world's biggest gene sequencing project.

Harvard's George Church plans to spend $1 billion to tie DNA information to each person's health history, creating a database for finding new medicines. The U.S., U.K., China and Sweden this year began working together to decipher the genetic makeup of 1,000 people at a cost of $50 million.

Google, owner of the most popular Internet search engine, is looking for ways to give people greater control over their medical data. Along with the unspecified donation to Church, the Mountain View, California-based company said last week that it would work with the Cleveland Clinic to better organize health records, and last year gave $3.9 million to 23andme Inc., a seller of genomic data to individuals.

Church's plan ``would be the largest human genome sequencing project in the world,'' Stephen Elledge, a geneticist at Harvard Medical School in Boston, said in a telephone interview today. ``The genetic variations are what make people different, and we need to understand the connections to human disease. They'll get a tremendous amount of information from this,'' said Elledge, who isn't involved in the project.

About a dozen full genomes have been sequenced, said David Altshuler, a geneticist at the Broad Institute in Cambridge, Massachusetts. He is a leader of the project involving the U.S., U.K., China and Sweden. That plan, announced in January, aimed to increase the number of sequenced genomes about 100 times.

`Going for 1 Million'

Church, who helped develop the first direct genomic sequencing method in 1984, said that while he plans to enroll 100,000 participants, he may not end it there.

``If we can expand the project, we'll probably go for a million genomes,'' Church said. Since 1984, Church has advised 22 companies including Helicos Biosciences Inc., which recently began selling high-speed gene sequencers, and 23andme.

Google Chairman and Chief Executive Officer Eric Schmidt unveiled a new product, Google Health, at a conference yesterday in Orlando. The company fell $4.21 , or 0.9 percent, to $471.18 as of 4:30 p.m. New York time in Nasdaq Stock Market composite trading.

The Internet-based service will help people manage their medical records and test results so they can be shared safely and privately with various specialists. Genomic data may eventually be included, said Marissa Mayer, vice president for search products.

``We have some genetic partners where we've already been making investments,'' Mayer said in a telephone interview yesterday. ``Genetics is much further out, and will be done at the control and discretion of the user.''

Ideally Suited

Ross Muken, a Deutsche Bank Securities Inc. analyst in San Francisco, said Google is ideally suited to help consumers keep track of genetic data, as new sequencing technology becomes available.

``They want to have an ability to display to the individual their genetic information in a user-friendly interface,'' he said in a telephone interview. ``Who better to do that than Google?'''

Google's involvement would also be a boon to companies that sell sequencing equipment, including Helicos, Illumina Inc., Applied Biosciences Group, and Danaher Corp., he said.

``Players like Google and Microsoft have the ability to move things along at a quicker pace,'' Muken said.

Helicos fell 69 cents, or 6.2 percent, to $10.50 in Nasdaq Stock Market composite trading; Illumina dropped $1.54, or 2.1 percent, to $72.41; and Applied Biosystems declined 32 cents, or 0.9 percent, to $33.71. Danaher fell 36 cents to $74.15 in New York Stock Exchange composite trading.

Database Builder

Google spokesman Andrew Pederson said it began supporting Church, who teaches at Harvard Medical School in Boston, with a donation late last year.

By matching genetic data from each person with his or her health history, Church would build a database that would link DNA variations and disease for scientists and drugmakers, the first step in deciding on treatments that can block the mutations or adjust how they work within the body.

Church also said he'll explore other human traits under genetic control. Participants will give facial and body measurements, tell researchers what time they get up in the morning, and detail other behaviors, he said.

Church has already partially sequenced genomes from 10 people, and the jump to 100,000 is under review by a Harvard ethics panel. The project ``only stops when we stop learning things,'' Church said.

Controlling Costs

The Harvard scientist is controlling costs by sequencing only protein-making genes, which make up about 1 percent of the genome. He is asking for at least $1,000 from most participants to defray costs and subsidize some nonpaying subjects.

Helicos and Norwalk, Connecticut-based Applied Biosystems, which are contributing to the project, compete with Illumina in a $650 million gene-sequencing market, Deutsche Bank's Muken said. As the procedure becomes commonplace, the market's annual revenue could rise into the billions of dollars, he said.

``We do have an interest in the space from an investment perspective,'' said David Darst, a venture capital associate at New York-based OrbiMed, which manages more than $6 billion, in a telephone interview. ``We see a lot of promise around the overlaps with personalized medicine.''

By pairing medical histories with genetic data on the Web, Church is also confronting ethical boundaries. It's possible that subjects' identities can be deduced from their health information, scientists said.

`Mixed Feelings'

``He's explicitly going after medical histories, and there's very mixed feelings about this,'' said Kevin McKernan, one of the developers of Applied Biosystems' SOLiD sequencer. ``I think it's helpful and needed. We need to understand some of these issues that could scare everyone out of the field.''

Esther Dyson, an investor in technology and health-care companies, is already enrolled in a pilot portion of the Personal Genome Program for people who will have their sequences posted online. Last month, at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, she encouraged attendees to have their genomes sequenced by Church, she said.

``The reaction was amazingly positive,'' said Dyson, a board member of 23andme. ``Most people are curious and interested, and it's one of the last frontiers.''

``I wouldn't do it,'' said Amy McGuire, a Baylor College of Medicine medical ethicist, in an interview at a gene sequencing meeting in Florida. ``I want my privacy protected more than that. I have difficulty putting family pictures on Facebook,'' the social networking Web site.

`Don't Know Enough'

``We don't know enough about the actual risks,'' McGuire said.

There are many ways in which making genetic information public might hurt people, she said. Health insurers may not want to offer coverage to people with inherited risks of cancer or heart disease; other family member may be affected.

Those are precisely the issues that the field needs to resolve, Church said. The payoff is an unobstructed view of the next revolution in medicine, he said.

``Some people bought Apple IIe's and went on to become entrepreneurs in the electronics revolution,'' he said. ``People who participate in the Personal Genome Project will have a ringside seat for something that might be very similar.''

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