Advances in technology have made sequencing an individual’s genome a reality
Unsurprisingly, humanity has always been keenly interested in the biological make-up of humans. Learning about how the human body works can reduce illness, prevent disease and generally help to make the population healthier. Genomics, a sub-discipline of genetics, is a research area that focuses on analysing and also creating genetic data. It isn’t a new area of study – the international Human Genome Project (HGP) officially launched in 1990, with the initial aim of sequencing all three billion base pairs in the human genome. This was achieved in 2001, and now the project is working to identify all of the genes in the human genome. In the last few years, investors and startups have offered a substantial contribution to the growth of genome analysis. Since 2012, global equity funding in genomics equals $4.7 billion. No doubt encouraged by this, governments are also backing research. After a surge of funding in 2015, 2016 could be a pivotal year for genomics. Since the HGP began, the cost of sequencing has shrunk from $10m to just $10,000, supporting the idea that gene sequencing might one day become part of standard procedure. The real question, though, is what problems scientists hope to solve by analysing genomes. Is it worth all the investment?
Most of the applications for genome data have been used to enhance healthcare. Medical professionals can learn far more about disease from data sets than by performing general check-ups. Genomics allows researchers to better understand the cause of disease, how severe it is, and how best to treat it. Through genome analysis, researchers can identify genetic factors which increase the risk of illness, and then work out which of these factors are hereditary. This research has contributed to improved overall knowledge, creating more appropriate treatments and developing effective medication. Another celebrated use is the detection of cancer. In short, genomics offers the answers to a lot of killer questions. Despite the usefulness of genetic research, it’s still a narrow market. In a survey of over 1000 participants, it was found that only 15% had taken a genetic test, and that was largely the result of recommendation by a physician. Clearly there are barriers to wider adoption, and they mainly comprise the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), which has to approve U.S. company analysis before anything can be done with it.
How disruptive is genomics?
Genomics has the power to change the healthcare industry, creating new and improved ways to respond to illness. This, of course, is going to disrupt the way that healthcare works. Hospitals and other medical facilities will presumably be able to diagnose and treat patients far quicker and more efficiently than before, meaning that there will be less red tape to fight through in order to get the right treatment. This will be great in the short term, but could create congestion issues as existing infrastructures struggle to cope with the new level of traffic. Healthcare will look to new technologies such as the Internet of Things and AI to help it cope with the influx of data, which will contribute to the gradual transformation of the industry. Genomics has also created a new consumer market for those who aren’t perhaps suffering from a life-threatening condition, but fancy finding out about their own DNA. The consumer market is far smaller than the strictly medical side of applications, but it’s growing. Consumer curiosity is fuelling this growth, taking genetic research out of the lab and onto the figurative high street. Whilst most of this disruption is generally positive, there’s another angle to consider. What happens if genomics eventually progresses to the stage where scientists can ‘cure disease’? It’s an amazing prospect, but it’s also undeniably worrying, especially as the world is already overpopulated. How will a larger population fair when even now there are fears over food shortages? At the moment the number of people who have taken a genetic test is relatively small, but as technology improves and investment continues this figure will rise – and so will the level of disruption.
The business perspective
There are a lot of pharmaceutical and medically minded companies interested in genome analysis – one is even called Genomics. Companies are starting to see the value in genetic information, but as important as medical applications are, they aren’t the only reason that the research has seen such a rush of support. A blossoming consumer market is growing, made up of people who are simply curious about their own personal genetics and are willing to pay to find out about it. Therefore, genomics offers a business opportunity for new startups in both the consumer and medical markets. On the other hand, it may also create competition between established companies and promising startups. Changes to the way that medicine is created and distributed could also have negative consequences for big medical suppliers, as the medicines they supply could be deemed inadequate. Another important question surrounds data ownership. Who will own all of the new genetic information? Will it be bought and sold by companies, or should it be taken out of corporate hands and made universally accessible?
Genomics will lead to improved medication, add to existing knowledge about the causes and treatment of disease, and help humans to understand their own genetic make-up – and all of this is great. Most applications have been confined to medical healthcare, but there’s scope for a consumer market too. The growth of genomics has been aided by technological innovation, startups and rounds of funding. Although investment seems to have slowed, there’s still potential for 2016 to out-do the record-breaking funding of last year. As ground-breaking as it is, genomics will undoubtedly throw up some difficult questions surrounding population inflation and data ownership, and that’s just for starters. In May 2016, scientists discussed the possibility of creating a synthetic human genome. Despite controversy, the following month it was announced that the plan would go ahead. That alone is a project worth watching, and there will be many more to come.
Is there potential for a large consumer market in genomics? Will 2016 investment exceed the funding of last year? Share your thoughts and opinions.