28 October 2011. Ladies and gentlemen, start your sequencers. The nonprofit X Prize Foundation, having already used prize incentives to push forward work in fields such as space travel and energy-efficient automobiles, makes its first foray into the life sciences with the Archon Genomics X Prize. In January 2013, teams will have the opportunity to compete, over 30 days, to determine who can sequence 100 genomes the fastest, to the highest completeness and accuracy, all while spending $1,000 per genome or less. The winners will get $10 million, but science at large will receive a bigger gift: thorough sequences from 100 people who reached the ripe old age of 100-plus years. The prize organizers, who lay out the rules in the October 26 Nature Genetics online, hope the competition will contribute to studies of healthy aging as well as promote high-quality DNA sequencing.
In selecting the subject pool, “we were looking for what is the Holy Grail of sequencing, a group that would provide the greatest scientific impact,” said Grant Campany of the X Prize Foundation. Campany coauthored the Nature Genetics paper with Larry Kedes, also at the Foundation, which is based in Playa Vista, California. Campany hopes that public interest in the long-lived will attract attention to the campaign, allowing the foundation to educate people about health, aging, and genetics.
The prize will go to the first team to sequence 100 centenarian genomes within the $1,000 price point. The sequences must be 98 percent complete, have fewer than one error per million bases, and fully identify haplotype phase (i.e., map heterozygous allele pairs to the correct chromosome strand). If there are multiple winners, they will split the prize; should no team accomplish all the goals, smaller prizes will be given to groups that individually meet the top standards in accuracy, completeness, or haplotype analysis. Campany expects 10-15 teams will sign up; some companies, such as 454 Life Sciences of Branford, Connecticut, have already expressed interest. Entrants must use private, not government, funds so academic researchers will likely not compete.
Thomas Perls of Boston University is helping to recruit the 100 centenarians who will donate blood samples to the study. The group is seeking volunteers from around the globe who are cognitively healthy, so they can provide informed consent. “Therefore, these subjects will have demonstrated a remarkable resistance to the diseases that cause cognitive impairment,” Perls wrote in an e-mail to ARF. “We anticipate that their whole-genome sequences will be powerful controls for investigators studying the sequences of subjects with Alzheimer’s disease, and we are hoping they will help us find genetic variants that are protective against AD.” Early efforts in this regard have had mixed success (see ARF related news story). AD geneticists have since cautioned that genetic studies using the oldest old as controls against cognitive aging genes, or as sources of protective genes, should apply rigorous testing to ensure participants do not, in fact, have preclinical AD (see ARF related news story).
Will the prize be won? The challenge “seems very difficult to achieve,” commented Philippe Amouyel of the Institute Pasteur de Lille, France, in an e-mail to ARF. Amouyel has participated in large-scale genomewide association studies for AD (see ARF related news story on Hollingworth et al., 2011). However, he added, “nanotechnology developments and new molecular sequencing models offer incredible hope to reach such a goal.” Even if no one wins this particular prize, the challenge will still spur progress in DNA sequencing technology, Amouyel noted.
Teams have until 31 May 2012 to register. Between now and the January 2013 competition, the prize organizers are collecting samples and perfecting the methods to create the “answer sheet” sequences competitors must match, Campany said. As of now, there is no agreed-upon measure to validate a sequencing technique, he said, so they are providing an independent standard for competitors. “We are trying to create the ‘Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval’ for whole-genomic sequencing…the ‘X Prize seal of approval,’” he said.
The Vancouver-based diamond mining company Archon Minerals Limited put up the prize funds; the operating budget comes from Medco, a mail-order pharmacy in Franklin Lakes, New Jersey. The X Prize Foundation has previously made headlines with the Ansari X Prize, awarded in 2004 for 100-kilometer-high space flight, and the Progressive Automotive X Prize, awarded in 2010 for low-energy, gas-sipping autos. In the life sciences, the Foundation is developing prizes for a mobile diagnosis application, tuberculosis tests, and the restoration of vision after retinal degeneration. To find out more about the competition, visit the Genomics X Prize website.—Amber Dance.
Kedes L, Campany G. The new date, new format, new goals and new sponsor of the Archon Genomics X PRIZE Competition. Nat Genet. 2011 Nov. 43(11):1055-1058. Abstract