The Genetically-Modified Generation

Written By Jason Stutman

Posted November 25, 2013

At the Beijing Genomics Institute (BGI), Chinese scientists have been organizing DNA samples from 2,000 of the world’s smartest people.

The goal is to locate the genetic alleles responsible for human intelligence, and eventually allow parents to cherry-pick their children accordingly.

I know, it sounds a lot like the premise behind science fiction film Gattaca

But in fact, this notion is far from Hollywood.

Recent advances in genomic sequencing allow us to map out individual genomes at a faster pace and at a lower cost than ever before.

This isn’t the work of a single independent research group; this is a state-sponsored program. With it, the Chinese government plans to raise its next generation’s intelligence by an average of 15 IQ points.

I don’t know about you, but the prospect of a genetically-modified population is a bit disconcerting to me, especially when the nation employing it also happens to be one of our greatest economic competitors…

Before we get any deeper into a discussion about the ethics of genetic science and “playing God,” let me be upfront in saying I’d rather not get into that here. I’ve come across people with drastically different opinions on the matter, and tempers tend to fly high on the issue.

To be perfectly frank, I couldn’t care less about the ethics of genetic science — at least, on this forum.

Because whether we think it’s right or wrong, the reality is there’s a boatload of money to be made in this space. And that’s what I want to talk about today.

Designer Babies

This summer, the world’s first person screened with next generation sequencing (NGS) was born in the United Kingdom. Scientists were able to identify a healthy embryo from a couple with a history of miscarriage to produce a healthy baby boy using in vitro fertilization (IVF).

While genetic screening and IVF have existed for over a decade now, NGS provides a much-needed reduction in cost — and an equally welcomed bump in success rate.

Today the average IVF procedure will run you around $12,500; and in the majority of cases, the procedure results in a miscarriage.

Of course, not many prospective parents have that kind of cash to dish out, especially for a procedure with a high rate of failure. 

However, with NGS, screening costs are reduced along with the rate of miscarriages.

Historically, the high cost of genetic testing has kept the industry relatively modest, with annual revenue of ~$510 million. But in the advent of new NGS techniques, that number is expected to reach $7.6 billion by 2018, according to BCC Research.

If you don’t feel like doing the math, that’s a ridiculous 71.6% compound annual growth rate (CAGR).

Designer Medicine

Genetic testing doesn’t stop at embryo screening…

There are several clinical applications for NGS in health care, with 96% of these applications falling into one of three categories: prediction, detection, and care selection.

Prediction means detecting a disease or disorder before it manifests itself. Embryonic screening falls into this category, as does pre-cancer testing.

Angelina Jolie recently made headlines for having gone through a double mastectomy after genetic testing indicated a 50%-85% chance of breast cancer. NGS will make this kind of testing available to the average person, not just wealthy movie stars.

Detection simply refers to diagnostics. Approximately 30 million, or one in every 10 Americans, have a genetic disorder.

Genetic testing allows doctors diagnose these patients and provide treatment accordingly.

Care selection involves using NGS to map a patient’s individual genetic code and guide their treatment plan based on its structure.

Booz Allen Hamilton reports that this form of highly personalized medicine may soon be used in every medical patient. Today, care selection accounts for 40% of the genetic testing market.

The ultimate goal is that each of us will one day own a digital copy of our unique genomes, which we can then share with doctors as needed. This form of NGS would be done through direct-to-consumer (DTC) testing services and allow patients to maintain control of their information.

Market Outlook

If NGS is going to be used for every patient, the market opportunity is absolutely massive.

Currently, it costs around $8,000 to map out a single genome… but we are rapidly approaching the $1,000 mark.

genome price

If Booz Allen is correct — and NGS is used for every patient — a $1,000 test would mean a potential $308 billion domestic market for sequencing alone.

It’s worth noting that if patients were given ownership of their genomic data, the sequencing market would eventually become saturated. We only have one genome, and it never changes… so once it’s mapped out, there’s no need to pay for that service again.

Of course, NGS market saturation is a long time coming; but it doesn’t hurt to be prepared for the inevitable.

Ultimately, recurring revenues in genome sequencing will come not from the tests themselves, but instead from big data analytics.

Big Data Bio

When we talk about using big data to analyze the genome, we’re specifically referring to a field called bioinformatics. The focus of bioinformatics is to store, organize, and analyze biological data.

The reality of NGS is that it has outpaced the infrastructure supporting the genetic testing industry. While we can rapidly extract genetic information, a bottleneck has formed at the levels of interpretation and clinical application.

A genome contains over three billion base pairs, making it nearly impossible for medical professionals to make informed clinical decisions without the proper supports. The result of all this is a growing demand for bioinformatics, specifically in NGS.

If you’re interested in affordable genetic testing, I recommend checking out 23andMe…<

For just $99, you can order what’s called a phenotype DNA test. It won’t sequence your entire genome; however, it will examine what are arguably the most important one million base pairs.

Turning progress to profits,

  JS Sig

Jason Stutman

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