The pieces of you

IBM re­search­ing DNA tran­sis­tors

Finweek English Edition - - Tech Trends -

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.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from South Africa

© PressReader. All rights reserved.