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As X Prize Foundation Fleshes Out Genomics Competition, USC s Kedes Tapped to Head Advisory Board

NEW YORK, Feb. 6 (GenomeWeb News) - In recent months, the genomics community has heard rumblings that the X Prize Foundation will soon announce a cash prize for rapid, cheap whole-genome sequencing.


According to a foundation spokesperson, however, the earliest the competition will be announced is this summer, perhaps late summer. Currently, the foundation is in the "prize discovery phase" and an advisory board that will decide the competition structure is currently being formed.


"We are assembling the brightest people in the community to determine what's the best course of action here," said Ian Murphy, a spokesperson for the X Prize Foundation. "There are a lot of different things that go into this initial phase, which is determining the roadmap for funding, coming up with a proper, nonconvoluted set of rules. ... You have to have the right set of rules that will create a competitive atmosphere."


The nonprofit X Prize Foundation, based in Santa Monica, Calif., uses huge cash awards to encourage innovation in scientific fields. It awarded its first prize, for $10 million, in 2004 to Mojave Aerospace Ventures led by Burt Rutan for flying a specially designed aircraft to the sub-orbital altitude of 100 kilometers on two consecutive flights, within two weeks. The foundation is now branching out; projects for space, automobiles, and genomics are in the works.


Larry Kedes, director of the Institute for Genetic Medicine at the University of Southern California, is heading up the advisory committee for the genome prize. He was recruiting committee members at press time, and said the competition structure has yet to be defined.


One possible goal is to award the as-yet-undetermined cash prize to the first team to decode the DNA of 100 or more people in a matter of weeks. The committee will consider a number of other ideas, and, most likely, the competition will avoid specifying a dollar amount in its goal, such as sequencing a genome for $1,000.


"We are probably not going to talk about cheap in terms of a dollar goal, because we don't want to have to call accountants in to prove the winner met that," Kedes said. "If they can do it rapidly and large amounts of it, you know it's got to be relatively inexpensive."


Kedes said the X Prize sent out inquiries asking if researchers were interested in heading up the committee, and he jumped at the chance. "It sounded like a very challenging consulting opportunity for me," he said. 


Murphy said the foundation picked Kedes because it was looking for someone who could move easily between the medical and technology worlds. "Kedes is someone who will maintain focus on the practical application of new medical science without being distracted by marginal technological gains.


"The purpose of the prize is not to accelerate technology for technology's sake. It is to really create something that can be used in the medical world to save lives," said Murphy, pointing to the fact that Kedes has an MD, not a PhD. Kedes "has experience as an administrator, a doctor, and a scientist."


Kedes has been at USC since 1988. A molecular geneticist, he was among the first scientists to demonstrate the organization of genes in animal cells. These days, his research focuses on understanding the molecular mechanisms controlling tissue-specific gene expression and the genetic regulation of muscle and heart cells.


The USC scientist consulted with many sequencing experts to come up with a list of people to invite to the advisory committee. Kedes said the board will most likely have 12 people on it. Eight individuals had formally signed on at press time, but the only name that was divulged to GenomeWeb News is Craig Venter. This makes sense given that the prize was actually his idea.


Venter, who has an affinity for space, joined the X Prize Foundation board of trustees last year and brought the idea to the board. Two years ago, Venter created a $500,000 prize for a person or organization that develops technology that can "significantly advance" automated DNA sequencing toward the $1,000 genome. Last October, impatient with the pace of development, Venter said he planned to increase his prize. Now, this award will be incorporated into the genome X Prize.


Murphy said the genome award could run between $5 million and $20 million. The foundation doesn't expect anyone to claim the prize for at least five to 10 years.


The foundation doesn't have to raise all of the money before announcing the competition, and having a solid funding plan in place would be enough to get the ball rolling. "You don't have to fund it right away," Murphy said. "You just have to fund it by the time it's ready to be won."


Kate O'Rourke covers the next-generation genome-sequencing market for GenomeWeb News. E-mail her at [email protected].


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