Next Generation Genomics: Will India ever catch up?

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While following the technology news over the last few months, I have come to realize that while India is on par with the developed nations in the field of engineering, we might be overlooking the next big technology and business opportunity; Next Generation Genomics. Around the world, several companies and National organizations are exploring and developing programs in clinical genomics based primarily on sequencing of the genome. Early adapters will certainly have an advantage and gain momentum in identifying the best possible medical care for an individual

In the US, clinical genomics has shown traction not only from private labs and companies but from national institutions and government agencies. This adoption is being driven largely by availability of low cost sequencers and the decreasing cost of sequencing. For example, Illumina recently announced the launch of two new sequencing systems; the HiSeq X Ten and the NextSeq 500. While the X Ten has the capacity to sequence five human genomes in a day at a possible cost of $1000 per genome, the NextSeq 500 is more of a desktop system with flexibility in throughput. Previously, Illumina had launched the MiSeq sequencer designed to enable small sequencing and molecular diagnostic labs to sequence few samples or smaller regions of the genome. Life Technologies also has the Ion Torrent sequencer, a desktop sequencer that is suitable for research as well as clinics. The targeted gene panels for cancers and inherited diseases developed by Illumina, Life Technologies, Rain Dance, Agilent etc. are also enabling sequencing to be carried out routinely in clinics. Companies offering sequencing based molecular diagnostics such as Myriad Genetics, Invitae, and Genomic Health are flourishing in the US and the stories of successful application of sequencing in molecular diagnostics are increasing at a rapid pace. Additionally, large universities and hospitals such as Washington University, Dana Farber Cancer Institute, Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Centre, Baylor College of Medicine, Brigham and Women’s Hospital, and of course the Broad Institute at MIT and Harvard are on the leading edge in genomic research and clinical applications of sequencing. Additionally, as the analysis of genomic data is a big data analytics problem to a certain extent, a number of traditionally electronics and IT companies such as Sony , SAP, IBM and Google (are investing in genomic research. It is clear from the activities and efforts in the genomic research in the US that this discipline is gaining momentum and is on the agenda of big players.India is beginning to see sporadic activity in genomics; both in research and in clinical applications. A number of companies such as Strand Life Sciences, MedGenom, mapmygenome etc., buoyed by the success and enthusiasm around genomics globally, have ventured into clinical genomics. On the research front, institutes such as National Institute of Biomedical Genomics (NIBMG) – the Indian partner in the International Cancer Genomics Consortium, Advanced Centre for Treatment, Research and Education in Cancer (ACTREC), Institute of Genomics and Integrative Biology (IGIB) and the KEM diabetes research center are taking the lead in genomic research. However, at this point there is a lack of large scale or population level efforts to generate sequence data in India. These research and data would be extremely useful and crucial to study and understand the susceptibility of the Indian population to certain lifestyle diseases as well as diseases with a clear genetic component such as cancer. The lack of traction in this discipline in India can also be contrasted to the great sequencing push in China, which is mostly driven by BGI. In November 2011, BGI announced the very ambitious 3 M project, which set a goal to sequence a million humans, a million plants, and a million animals. BGI has also tied up with AutismSpeaks to sequence genomes of 10000 individuals with autism spectrum disorders and with universities in Denmark to sequence thousands of genomes of lean and obese individuals Databases all over the world are exploding with genetic information of Caucasian, European, Japanese and Chinese populations, with close to nil representation for the Indian population!

So what is India waiting for?

While India has become a renowned destination for medical tourism, where it provides state-of-the-art surgeries and medical care to patients from all over the world at a fraction of the cost; the rest of world is rapidly moving towards genomics-based diagnosis and treatment aka Personalized Medicine. Unless India undertakes national level efforts to generate genomic data for medical use, she is in real danger of missing the boat.

India has been highly successful in many areas since opening up its economy. Not only India has proved its leadership in the field of information technology, but it has also entered the elite space club with successful launch of GSLV-D5 as well as the Mars Orbiter Mission, and has transformed the nation’s reputation from a net importer of food grains to a net exporter over the last decade; so why not participate in the genomic revolution as well?

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