Genome sequencing: are we ready?

Technology is changing everything. Its changing how we think, how we interact, our social norms and every aspect of our life. It is also helping us progress in every field. One of the fields that has been completely changed by technology is genetic research. In the 1980s, the cost of whole genome sequencing was in millions of dollars. Over the years, the cost has been falling. In a few decades, the cost reached about $250,000. While that is still staggering, its much more affordable compared to millions of dollars. However, the cost has been falling steadily over time. It reached just $7000 a few years back and has just reached $1000 now. People can get whole genome sequencing for $1000. That is a more affordable price for people that would want their genome sequenced. Scientists and researchers have also been hoping to reach the $1000 price tag as it would make genome sequencing more accessible and would also allow us to gather more data from more people and use the data to make a difference. It can be used to understand diseases better, develop cures for the diseases and even enter the world of personal medicine. Its the beginning of the pharmaceutical revolution.

As genome sequencing is getting more affordable, physicians are starting to recommending it to patients where normal treatments don’t show sign of improvement or for uncommon conditions. But there are also individuals that are curious about their genes and want to learn about the genes and understand their likelihood of getting a particular disease. Silicon Valley startup 23andMe caters to these people. They have a $99 kit that is sent to customers to collect saliva and sent back to their lab. Then they do DNA sequencing on the sample to find different characteristics. Though this is not whole DNA sequencing. They only sequence a few genomes and compute a probabilistic likelihood of getting a disease based on the small subset of data. This is just a guess as the complete picture can only be understood by whole genome sequencing. Though 23andMe has gotten into some trouble with regulators about not being licensed properly as their tests are considered medical tests. They now continue their sequencing but only disclose certain ethnic facts instead of revealing likelihood of getting different diseases. This brings us to the question: are we ready?

While genome sequencing can save lives of patients, is genome sequencing something that curious individuals should be able to do? It information about our own genes a right? If we know certain aspects of our genomes, will it change our lifestyle? Will knowing likelihood of diseases make us take better care of ourselves or just make us paranoid? Early detection of medical conditions and preventative healthcare are areas where genome sequencing can help. But will knowing you might get a disease later in your life affect your choices in life? Will it affect how you see things and make decisions? These are all questions remaining to be answered. We are at a point where we can gain tremendous knowledge about ourselves. But can we handle it? The Greek aphorism says “know thyself”, but is this knowing too much?

Technology is improving at a very fast pace and we need to answer these questions and define the framework for genetics. It may become a norm that when children are born, their blood sample is taken and whole genome sequencing is conducted and stored in their medical record. The genes could become our identity.