As hyped as it is, genetic sequencing remains out of reach for most people. With a cost of at least $4,000 to sequence a single genome, there's just no way that the technology can currently be used in a clinical setting. There's nothing like a cash prize to speed up research, however, which is why the Archon Genomics X Prize is offering $10 million to the first team that can quickly, accurately, and cheaply sequence 100 genomes.
One other requirement: Those 100 genomes have to come from people who have lived to be 100. While that won't necessarily explain why these centenarians lived longer than others, it could be a start. "The notion of looking at people who have already lived to 100, they obviously have something working for them," says Craig Venter, the originator of the prize and the first person to sequence the human genome. "In the past, geneticists have looked at so-called disease genes, but a lot of people have changes in their genes and don't get these diseases. There have to be other parts of physiology and genetics that compensate."
Ultimately, the prize isn't just about geriatric wellness—it's about making genetic sequencing widely available to the public. A successful team will figure out how to sequence genomes accurately (with a medical grade diagnostic rate), cheaply (less than $1,000), and quickly (in under one day).
All of these components are critical to making genetic sequencing ubiquitous, according to Venter. A sequencing process that has more than one error per million base pairs isn't reliable enough, a process that's too expensive can't scale up, and a process that takes more than a day isn't useful to some of the patients that need it the most—a cancer patient, for example, that needs genetic sequencing to determine the best course of treatment.
The Genomics X Prize officially opens for entrants in 2013, and Venter is hopeful that a winner will emerge soon after. Once that happens, medicine could change dramatically. Venter cites the example of a lung cancer drug that flopped miserably in clinical trials. But after testing it on a subset of patients with a certain genetic mutation, the drug turned out to work well. "Look at all the drugs out there that are randomly taken by large populations," says Venter. "[Genetic sequencing] could affect things very quickly."