IBM aims for personalized medicine with DNA chip

IBM's research effort proposes to map genetic code in minutes at a cost of between $100 and $1,000

IBM aims to expand the life span of humans by developing a chip that could make personalized medicine affordable and quick, a company researcher said on Tuesday.

The company plans to develop a chip that can quickly map out genetic code contained within the biological structures of organisms. The chip will try to understand genetic code by sequencing strands of DNA -- the basic building block of life -- to help individualize courses of medical treatment for patients, said Gustavo Stolovitzky, a scientist and manager of functional genomics at IBM Research.

IBM hopes the genome reader will be able to map out genetic code in a matter of minutes at a cost of between US$100 and $1,000, he said.

"People will not die ... of side effects (from inappropriate drugs), or we will know a little bit better how to adapt their lifestyles to their genetic makeup," Stolovitzky said. "Nobody wants to be treated as an average patient. Everybody wants to be treated as an individual patient."

Understanding the genetic code by reading DNA will aid in precisely detecting diseases and improving the quality of treatment offered to patients, Stolovitzky said.

The genome reader is being designed as a silicon chip in which DNA is threaded through a pore in the chip and its characteristics are read out sequentially. The chip has tiny electrodes to produce electrical fields that can trap negatively charged DNA molecules, after which the chip will measure and sequence the DNA. Components integrated into the chip include chemical, physical and atomic layers that aid in evaluating the molecules and sequencing the genetic composition. A microprocessor, most likely residing outside the chip, would also be needed for DNA sequencing.

The DNA-reading chip might also be used for other biotechnology applications that involve sequencing human, animal, bacterial and vegetable DNA, Stolovitzky said.

Ultimately, the company aims to shrink the chip for use in handheld medical devices with which patients can deposit a sample to get their DNA read in a matter of seconds or minutes. The device could be much like a glucose meter, in which users deposit a drop of blood and the device shows the blood-sugar levels in a matter of seconds, Stolovitzky said.

Building the chip is the first step, and IBM will continue its DNA research to help the chip accurately map genetic code.

"We're in a process in which we will have milestones ... [over] three years. At the end of three years we will know if it's feasible or not," Stolovitzky said.

He couldn't predict when the technology would be commercially available. But if it does become available, it could be provided to patients through doctor's offices or in handheld medical devices. Such DNA sequencers could eliminate sequences of lab tests that currently last weeks, he said.

IBM's research would represent an advancement over earlier genome-sequencing efforts that were costly and took years to accomplish. The first-ever genetic sequencing program, the Human Genome Project, was completed in 2003 after 13 years of effort at a cost of $3 billion. The research project was funded primarily by the U.S. Department of Energy and the National Institutes of Health.

The genetic sequencing effort brings together IBM's nanotechnology and research surrounding multiple scientific disciplines. IBM has embarked on other DNA research efforts, including an experiment to use DNA as a way to create tiny circuits, a project unrelated to the genomic reader.

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Agam Shah

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