IBM DNA Decoding Meets Roche for Personalized Medicine

IBM and Roche are working together to decode DNA more quickly and cheaply, potentially allowing patients to receive customized prescription drugs. In the future, this kind of health care IT could also allow patients to purchase their own DNA code information for as little as $100.

IBM and Roche, a pharmaceutical and diagnostics company based in Basel, Switzerland, are working together to fine-tune a DNA decoding process that could lead to faster and more affordable sequencing and personalized medication.

As part of the July 1 agreement, Roche's subsidiary, 454 Life Sciences, will market and distribute future products based on IBM's DNA Transistor technology. In addition, IBM will license the technology and continue to provide expertise and resources.

Roche, which describes itself as the largest biotech company in the world, holds "expertise in medical diagnostics and genome sequencing," IBM announced.

"Sequencing is an increasingly critical tool for personalized health care," Manfred Baier, head of applied science at Roche, said in a statement. "It can provide the individual genetic information necessary for the effective diagnosis and targeted treatment of diseases. We are confident that this powerful technology, plus the combined strengths of IBM and Roche, will make low-cost whole genome sequencing and its benefits available to the marketplace faster than previously thought possible."

Ajay Royyuru, senior manager of the IBM Research Computational Biology Center, explained that DNA sequencing has come a long way in 10 years, as originally genome sequencing was not yet possible. Now the technology is available but costly, he said.

"The next step we need to take is to make it faster and better in quality of readout and scale of operation. Once we reach that point, which could be [in] the next five years or 10 years, then I think we have the potential of being able to apply that routinely to the practice of medicine," Royyuru said in an interview with eWEEK.

The goal of the project is to read DNA quickly and efficiently at a low cost. If successful, this process would allow doctors to more effectively match medication to patients.

IBM's DNA Transistor technology, comprising a combination of metal and silicon insulation, uses electrodes to thread DNA molecules through a nanopore, a hole the size of a nanometer, or one-billionth of a meter.

Royyuru compared the creation of the nanopore to punching a small hole through a piece of paper with a pencil.

"We're able to drill a hole small enough and operate it electrically to put the DNA through the pore. All of that we have shown is workable," he said.

In the next phase of development, IBM and Roche will work on moving the DNA through the nanopore.

"Then we will have shown at that point that we can control the passage of DNA," Royyuru said.

Slowing down the DNA as it travels through the nanopore makes genetic data readable, he said.

Personalized medication can eliminate some adverse side effects of current drugs. Some preliminary cancer drugs based on the DNA Transistor technology have already reached the market, Royyuru noted.

"Today what everybody does with medicine is trial and error," Royyuru said. "They give a certain treatment because it worked on most people before. But they have no way of knowing if it will work on you or not. They have side effects that are worse than what you're trying to treat."

Ultimately, the technology has the potential to improve throughput and reduce costs, so human genome sequencing could be purchased for $100 to $1,000.

In addition to the announcement, IBM has posted a video of how the DNA Transistor technology works.