In 2006, the cover of Scientific American was "Know Your DNA" and the inside story was "Genomes for All." Today, we are closer to that goal than ever. Making it affordable for everyone to understand and change their DNA will fundamentally alter how we manage diseases, how we conduct clinical research, and even how we select a mate.
Since 2006, we have driven the cost of reading a human genome down from $3 billion to $600. To aid interpretation and research to produce new diagnostics and therapeutics, my research team at Harvard initiated the Personal Genome Project and later, Openhumans.org. This has demonstrated international informed consent for human genomes, and diverse environmental and trait data can be distributed freely. This is done with no strings attached in a manner analogous to Wikipedia. Cell lines from that project are similarly freely available for experiments on synthetic biology, gene therapy and human developmental biology. DNA from those cells have been chosen by the US National Institute of Standards and Technology and the Food and Drug Administration to be the key federal standards for the human genome.
A frequent line of questions on the topic of making genome reading affordable is: Do we need to read the whole genome in order to accurately predict disease risk? Can we just do most commonly varying parts of the genome, which constitute only a tiny fraction of a percent? Or just the most important parts encoding the proteins or ‘exome,’ which constitute about one percent of the genome? The commonly varying parts of the genome are poor predictors of serious genetic diseases and the exomes don’t detect DNA rearrangements which often wipe out gene function when they occur in non-coding regions within genes. Since the cost of the exome is not one percent of the whole genome cost, but nearly identical ($600), missing an impactful category of mutants is really not worth it. So the answer is yes, we should read the whole genome to glean comprehensively meaningful information.
In parallel to the reading revolution, we have dropped the price of DNA synthesis by a similar million-fold and made genome editing tools like CRISPR, TALE and MAGE close to free by distributing them through the non-profit Addgene.org. Gene therapies are already curing blindness in children and cancer in adults, and hopefully soon infectious diseases and hemoglobin diseases like sickle cell anemia. Nevertheless, gene therapies are (so far) the most expensive class of drugs in history (about $1 million dollars per dose).
This is in large part because the costs of proving safety and efficacy in a randomized clinical trial are high and that cost is spread out only over the people that benefit (aka the denominator). Striking growth is evident in such expensive hyper-personalized therapies ever since the “Orphan Drug Act of 1983.” For the most common disease, aging (which kills 90 percent of people in wealthy regions of the world), the denominator is maximal and the cost of the drugs should be low as genetic interventions to combat aging become available in the next ten years. But what can we do about rarer diseases with cheap access to genome reading and editing tools? Try to prevent them in the first place.
While the cost of reading has plummeted, the value of knowing your genome is higher than ever. About 5 percent of births result in extreme medical trauma over a person’s lifetime due to rare genetic diseases. Even without gene therapy, these cost the family and society more than a million dollars in drugs, diagnostics and instruments, extra general care, loss of income for the affected individual and other family members, plus pain and anxiety of the “medical odyssey” often via dozens of mystified physicians. A huge fraction of these births is preventable if unaffected carriers of such diseases do not mate.
The non-profit genetic screening organization, Dor Yeshorim (established in 1983), has shown that this is feasible by testing for Tay–Sachs disease, Familial dysautonomia, Cystic fibrosis, Canavan disease, Glycogen storage disease (type 1), Fanconi anemia (type C), Bloom syndrome, Niemann–Pick disease, Mucolipidosis type IV. This is often done at the pre-marital, matchmaking phase, which can reduce the frequency of natural or induced abortions. Such matchmaking can be done in such a way that no one knows the carrier status of any individual in the system. In addition to those nine tests, many additional diseases can be picked up by whole genome sequencing. No person can know in advance that they are exempt from these risks.
Furthermore, concerns about rare “false positives” is far less at the stage of matchmaking than at the stage of prenatal testing, since the latter could involve termination of a healthy fetus, while the former just means that you restrict your dating to 90 percent of the population. In order to scale this up from 13 million Ashkenazim and Sephardim to billions in diverse cultures, we will likely see new computer security, encryption, blockchain and matchmaking tools.
As reading and writing become exponentially more affordable and reliable, we can tackle equitable distribution, but there remain issues of education and security. Society, broadly (insurers, health care providers, governments) should be able to see a roughly 12-fold return on their investment of $1800 per person ($600 each for raw data, interpretation and incentivizing the participant) by saving $1 million per diseased child per 20 families. Everyone will have free access to their genome information and software to guide their choices in precision medicines, mates and participation in biomedical research studies.
In terms of writing and editing, if delivery efficiency and accuracy keep improving, then pill or aerosol formulations of gene therapies — even non-prescription, veterinary or home-made versions — are not inconceivable. Preventions tends to be more affordable and more humane than cures. If gene therapies provide prevention of diseases of aging, cancer and cognitive decline, they might be considered “enhancement,” but not necessarily more remarkable than past preventative strategies, like vaccines against HPV-cancer, smallpox and polio. Whether we’re overcoming an internal genetic flaw or an external infectious disease, the purpose is the same: to minimize human suffering. Once the diseases are eradicated from our population, the interventions can be said to impact not only the current population, but all subsequent generations. This reminds us that we need to listen carefully, educate each other and proactively imagine and deflect likely, and even unlikely, unintended consequences, including stigmatization of the last few unprotected individuals.