The pieces of you
IBM researching DNA transistors
MEDICINE IS CURRENTLY limited to the generalisations we can make about our bodies and their reactions to the environment. But what if we could accurately analyse individual genomes and instead of general treatment were able to tailor remedies according to an individual’s particular genetic make-up? That’s the dream of Gustavo Stolovitzky, who heads IBM’s Functional Genomics and Systems Biology Group at the Thomas J Watson Research Center and is taking steps towards a form of DNA analysis that would change medicine forever.
IBM is at the forefront of genetic research with its Blue Gene supercomputer architecture and the instrumental role it played in decoding the human genome. It’s forged a new category in technology called “computational biology” and houses some of the brightest minds on the planet in its research divisions.
On a trip to the Watson Research Center in New York, I met Stolovitzky, who is working towards the ambitious goal of creating a DNA transistor that will decode an individual’s genetics in just a few hours. To place that in context, the Human Genome Project that sequenced our specie’s hereditary information took 13 years to achieve, with supercomputers working overtime and a total estimated cost of US$3bn.
The DNA transistor would theoretically achieve even more than that in a couple of hours and cost less than $1 000.
Though it’s already possible to map an individual’s genome using existing sequencing methods, Stolovitzky says while that only takes a week to do it currently costs between $10 000 and $15 000 to achieve, making it less than useful in everyday healthcare.
If Stolovitzky and his team are successful, the DNA transistor will enable doctors to analyse a patient’s genetics in just a few hours and store that information. That would provide a wealth of information, including determining the patient’s tendency to depression, asthma, Huntington’s or other hereditary disorders. It would make diagnoses more accurate and tell doctors what tendencies to ignore.
Perhaps most importantly, it would allow for predictions to be made and proactive treatment to be applied instead of the reactive method we’re now forced to adopt, treating diseases and other ailments only once we know a patient has them.
As we discover more about genetic tendencies, formatting and mutation individual analysis would allow for pin-point medicines and other treatments that take all of those factors into account.
But we still have some way to go. The DNA transistor is still in its infancy, although Stolovitzky says progress has speeded up exponentially over the past five years. This tiny device has a cavity – or “nanopore” – at its centre, just big enough for a strand of DNA molecule to pass through.
The transistor will in theory create electrical fields that will pass the DNA strand through the nanopore. The charges will be used to stop the strand at various points and use sensors to pick up information about individual molecules.
Stolovitzky says the goal is to have a working prototype of the DNA transistor in three years’ time, although getting there will depend on findings along the way. However, the potential it represents is astounding. There has been rapid progress in genetics over recent years, largely thanks to cracking the genome. With the kind of technology scientists like Stolovitzky are now working on, we can envisage a future in which we could accurately predict how human beings will age, what potential health problems await them in later life and definitive treatments for those. We could even predict the genetic outcome of two people procreating and what that would mean for their children.
Computational biology and other biotech sectors are seeing a massive uptake in investment and analysts have predicted for some time it will become a dominant business in the technology industry this century.