‘Genetically engineered humans will be a reality by 2028’

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Mr Charles Cantor of Sequenom Inc
Mr Charles Cantor of Sequenom Inc

The challenge remains conversion of the enormous genome sequence data into templates that allow reliable prediction of genome functions. — Charles Cantor of Sequenom Inc

M. Somasekhar

Hyderabad, Sept. 28 In the year 2028, it would be possible to do the entire human genome sequence for less than $100, from the current cost that runs up to thousands of dollar. Individuals will be routinely sequenced either pre-natal or neo-natal, to get a long term picture of their susceptibility to genetic diseases.

Genetically engineered humans will be a reality, whether we like it or not or whether it is ethical or not. While biology, which was entirely unanticipated, could emerge, many aspects of the complex diseases of today will still not be understood.

This is the likely scenario two decades from now (2028) in the exciting world of Genomics, as visualised by one of the most accomplished scientists in the field, Charles Cantor, Founder, Chief Scientific Officer, of Sequenom Inc, US. Cantor made these bold observations in the Human Genome Organisation (HUGO) 20th anniversary lecture titled ‘Genomics: 20 years ago and 20 years from now’, at the inaugural of the four-day international Human Genetics Meet which opened here on Saturday.

“In 2028, I am confident that DNA (Deoxyribonucleic Acid) sequence information will play an important role in management of individual healthcare. It will be possible to sequence every individual in a cost-effective way, but the challenge could remain about how to use this information to guide individual healthcare and lifestyle decisions,” Cantor felt.

Pushing the story back to 1988, Cantor, who was among the original members of HUGO (which is responsible for putting the genome data in public domain), said, that year, the vision of mapping and sequencing the entire genome of human and other species was established, but the techniques were to be developed.

There were no DNA arrays, fast crunching machines, no real time PCRs (Polymerase Chain Reactions), and nothing was known about small RNA (Ribonucleic Acid). The cost of a bacterial sequence was not conceivable, he said.

Remarkable progress

“By 2008, when we meet here in Hyderabad, the progress has been so remarkable that not just the human genome, but several small organisms like drosophila, some bacteria to higher organisms, have been completely mapped,” Cantor told an audience consisting of scientists, researchers and students totalling over 1,500.

Today, a total bacterial sequence can be done in a few days, non-invasive nucleic acid diagnostics for foetal defects or cancer can be done and human genetic engineering is happening and nobody is objecting, Cantor, who is also Co-Director of the Center for Advanced Biotechnology at Boston University, said.

Stating that Genomics holds tremendous opportunities for young scientists, Cantor, who has also founded a few start-ups, said the challenge remains the conversion of the enormous genome sequence data into templates that allow the reliable prediction of genome functions.

“Would I venture Human Genomics in 2048? I feel it is ‘Unimaginable!’”, said Cantor in conclusion and to thunderous applause.

(This article was published in the Business Line print edition dated September 29, 2008)
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