Obama's $215 Million DNA Sequencing Project Is A Great Idea
This morning, President Obama is going to announce the new “Precision Medicine Initiative” that he teased in his State of the Union address on January 20 to a roomful of luminaries including the research heads of several major drug makers. It’s a gimmicky grab for budget money that’s scant on details – barely a sketch of an idea.
It’s also a smart move and should be worth every penny.
Obama is requesting $215 million in new investment for the new initiative. The first $130 million of that will go to the National Institutes of Health fund the creation of a national research program tracking the data of 1 million volunteer donors, including, for many, their DNA sequences. Another $70 million will go to the National Cancer Institute, which is part of the NIH, to identify the genetic drivers of cancer. The next $10 million will go to the Food and Drug Administration to develop new regulatory structures to deal with approving more personalized drugs, and the final $5 million goes to the office of the National Coordinator to help get all the relevant information technology systems to cooperate. The plan was described to reporters on a call yesterday afternoon.
Let’s be honest: these initiatives are partly there to make the president look presidential (hoping voters remember Kennedy sending men to the moon and not Nixon’s War on Cancer) and partly as a way to try and fight back the fact that the budget of the NIH has been getting tighter as research costs rise faster than inflation. There are often impressive claims made, as in 2013, when, announcing his $100 million BRAIN Initiative, Obama argued that for every dollar that had been spent to map the human genome, $140 had been delivered to the economy. (Maybe, but that number comes from a report commissioned by Life Technologies , now part of Thermo Fisher, a descendent of the company that made the DNA sequencers used in the project – and during that same period major drug companies, one of the main beneficiaries of the project, cut hundreds of thousands of jobs.)
But whether or not State-of-the-Union science is a good idea generally, this is a good idea today, particularly because of the revolution that the human genome project really did kick off. As a result of the human genome project and private sector efforts byIlluminaILMN-2.41%, the dominant maker of DNA sequencers, the cost of analyzing a human genome has dropped from $400 million to $1,000. The ability to track other kinds of data and to analyze those data with computers has dropped precipitously, though not quite as fast.
That has led to a lot of other efforts to build databases of patient data. That includes the United Kingdom’s effort to amass 100,000 genomes, and also private efforts including those of the billionaire Patrick Soon-Shiong’s NantHealth, Craig Venter’s startup Human Longevity, and the biotechnology company Regeneron. It’s good forCelgeneCELG-1.42% or Pfizer to sequence lots of genomes, but its better if that data is accessible to researchers everywhere.
The effort Obama is announcing, masterminded by NIH chief Francis Collins, who dueled with Venter’s private company during the last human genome race, seems to try to do this on the cheap, stitching together many ongoing projects into a government consortium. But it’s still the right idea. Having the government, as well as industry, collect this data will make all of it – from genomics to mobile health – more open and free. And that can only mean better science for everyone