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X Prize punts cash for medical breakthrough

Millionaires' club sets genome target

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A $10m carrot is being dangled at biotech firms to encourage them to redouble efforts to make genome sequencing available to individuals.

The X Prize Foundation is behind the reward, which will be handed to the first to sequence 100 human genomes in 10 days. It's the next top priority for the millionaire-packed coterie after it helped kickstart commercial space exploration.

The foundation's $10m space prize was claimed two years ago yesterday, when Burt Rutan's SpaceShipOne to the first privately-built manned space flight. The company behind that venture, Mojave Aerospace Ventures, later claimed the contract to supply Richard Branson's Virgin Galactic space tourism fleet.

The X Prize Foundation hopes rapid genome sequencing will open new medical possibilities, enabling doctors to determine genetic susceptibility to a host of diseases and tailor therapies to an individual's genome.

X Prize Foundation chairman Peter Diamandis said: "The Archon X PRIZE for Genomics will...[make] genome sequencing affordable and available in every hospital and medical care facility in the world."

Archon is a minerals company which made a huge donation to the X Prize.

An extra £1m is on offer if a firm can also sequence the genomes of 100 wealthy X-prize supporters, including Microsoft founder Paul Allen. The foundation said three firms have already registered for the competition.

The X Prize board of trustees includes Google founder Larry Page and contoversial genome entrepreneur Craig Venter, who provided the private competition to the publicly-funded Human Genome Project which many credit with its speedy completion.

A widely promised medical revolution arising from the original Human Genome Project is yet to materialise, however. The X Prize Foundation's claim that genome sequencing will "eventually help determine your genetic future", is still a pipedream. There are thousands of elements in the human genome whose function is still unclear, and their interactions even less so.

Ethicists have voiced concerns that cheap genome sequencing could lead to a kind of "genetic apartheid", with insurance companies and employers discriminating on the basis of genetic inheritance. In the US the Genetic Non-Discrimination bill is currently stalled in the House of Representatives. Here all the insurance companies have signed up to a voluntary moratorium on using genetic testing while the two sides of the debate lobby government.

It's expected an insurance company will apply for special dispensation to break the moratorium in the next 18 months or so, in the case of an inherited disease like Huntington's which only emerges in middle age and is always lethal.

The widespread genome sequencing sought by the X Prize Foundation would force the issue to be tackled. ®

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