The co-founder of Intel, Andy Grove, has a saying that when you think about a technology, you shouldn’t think about what it can do today. You should think about what it would be like if it was ten times cheaper or ten times faster. I couldn’t help but think of this when reading about predictions made this week at the lanuch of the Wellcome Collection in London that DNA sequencing would be used routinely in health treatment in ten years time.
The secret is in the economics apparently – which are driven largely by technology. This sounds a bit like one of those school maths problems, but at the moment it takes around 20 technicians eight or nine months to sequence a single person’s DNA. New technologies could replace the people, so that two or three people could do the job in a week. Which on the back of my envelope sounds like it would be about 100 times cheaper.
From the perspective of genetic scientists this is largely a good thing. They can see applications will help diagnose the optimal response to a cancer or even spot people with cancers early. It could help those with genetic diseases, and so on. But once the technology is that widespread it clearly opens up the gates for all of the ethical issues which have been prefigured (insruance hazard and so on). Perhaps more interesting, if we do see a fell in cost and simplicity of that magnitude in a decade, is how it might look in twenty years. In a world where people already talk about a ‘lab on a chip’ one can envisage do it yourself DNA sequencing on one’s laptop – even a whole open source community.