Genomics X Prize Cancelled

The genomics X Prize had only a slight connection to aging research: the goal was to sequence the genomes of 100 centenarians at a small cost, and add that knowledge to the present state of understanding regarding the genetics of human longevity. That result would have been a side-effect of spurring work in low-cost sequencing. But sequencing is advancing rapidly regardless, there was no great public interest in the prize, and greater understanding of the genetics underlying natural variations in longevity is not the path to greatly extending human life. The research community will meaningfully extend healthy life spans through rejuvenation, by repairing the already known root causes of aging, not by altering human genes to slow down aging.

So all in all, I think that this prize was a poor choice at the outset: the goal not radical enough, and focused on an area of research and development that was already in a state of rapid progress, and with too much funding available for a research prize to be effective.

Mere weeks before its official start, the genomics X Prize - intended to spur a revolution in fast, cheap and accurate human-genome sequencing - has been abruptly cancelled. Peter Diamandis, chair of the X Prize Foundation in Playa Vista, California, says the Archon Genomics X Prize has been abandoned because it was outpaced by innovation.

Announced seven years ago, the prize asked companies to design devices that could sequence 100 human genomes in 30 days or less, with additional requirements for accuracy and cost. Today, companies are routinely sequencing human genomes for less than the $10,000 per genome the prize originally required. But the full picture is more complex. Yes, the cost of genome sequencing has plummeted, which explains why the prize had dropped its cost goal to $1000 per genome. But current technologies are still some way from meeting the revised goal for accuracy: making only one error per million DNA bases sequenced.

Genomics pioneer Craig Venter, who conceived the prize, is disappointed that companies and scientists "seem to have little or no interest in meeting the demanding goals we set up". Indeed, only two teams had entered. Given that the genome-sequencing industry has annual revenues in the billions of dollars, it is perhaps no surprise that a $10 million prize did not prove a huge incentive. In the long term, though, Venter argues that concentrating on speed and cost over accuracy is misguided. "I think for the future, it's an absolute mistake," he says.

Clifford Reid, who heads Complete Genomics of Mountain View, California, one of the leading companies in the field, agrees. But he is confident that accuracy will improve, whether or not there's an X Prize on the table. "The market forces are in the process of changing from meeting the needs of the research community to the needs of medicine," says Reid.



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