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Forbes Scans the Future of Sequencing

In its Jan. 17, 2011 issue, Forbes magazine examines "Jonathan Rothberg's desktop decoder," and reports on the potential for hackers to harvest sensitive data generated by "cheap gene scans." In describing Life Technologies' Ion Personal Genome Machine, Forbes' Matthew Herper calls it "the machine that could change your life." Rothberg, too, is unabashedly optimistic about DNA sequencing: he expects it will soon catch up to the $100 billion medical imaging industry. "Sequencing is going to affect everything. …This is biology's century," he told Forbes. In order to go from a "$4 billion business to a $100 billion one," Rothberg says that "like radiology, there will be armies of trained physicians using specialized machines, as gene scanning hits the medical mainstream," as Herper puts it. Beneath Rothberg's audacious ambition — and contemptuous responses to competitors' criticisms — "lies a serious mission," Herper says. Rothberg's teenage daughter has a mild form of tuberous sclerosis complex, a disease for which genomics could help researchers deduce a cure. When it comes to sequencing technologies, "all motivation forever has been personal … because we all want to affect the people we love," Rothberg said. While he may've "snapped at anyone who told him that TSC might be curable" just a few years ago, Rothberg is now "much more optimistic," Herper says.

Meanwhile, amidst the fanfare surrounding the Ion PGM's commercial launch, Forbes' Kashmir Hill says that "the next big privacy battle may be over who has access to your DNA." Beyond the fact that "there is no federal law against surreptitious DNA testing," Hill says that an individual's genetic privacy could also be compromised by "what consumer genetics companies may do with all the data they collect," should they elect to order testing. At the advent of personal genomics, Hill says that several questions remain; for example, "Should prosecutors be allowed to subpoena a company's DNA database of thousands of people if they suspect it contains a match to a crime suspect?" As it's "becoming surprisingly easy for someone to test your DNA without permission," Hill contemplates whether consumers will be able to keep their personal information out of the hands of "genome hackers."

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