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XPrize Pulls Plug On $10 Million Genomics Competition

Soulskill posted about a year ago | from the over-and-out dept.

Biotech 36

sciencehabit writes "The XPrize Foundation has scrapped its high-profile $10 million genomics challenge set for next month after attracting only two competitors to the sequencing contest. The Archon Genomics XPRIZE began with much fanfare 7 years ago with the aim of boosting medical genomics by offering a $10 million award to the first team to sequence 100 human genomes in 10 days for no more than $10,000 each. After complaints about the tight deadline and unclear judging criteria, the foundation revised the rules in October 2011: The objective was to sequence the genomes of 100 centenarians with high accuracy and 98% completeness within 30 days for $1000 or less. Interest was tepid, however, and only two of the eight contenders in the original contest registered by the 31 May deadline — the company Ion Torrent, and George Church's lab at Harvard University."

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Sounds like they need an XPrize (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year ago | (#44692815)

For running the XPrizes better than XPrize.

That's stupid. (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year ago | (#44692823)

The winner will retire, one productive scientist less. We will never find cure for cancer this way. It's best to limit prizes to about $500,000, so scientists will ask for more and more, they will work hard.

Re:That's stupid. (1)

ShanghaiBill (739463) | about a year ago | (#44693251)

The winner will retire, one productive scientist less.

Very few scientists are in it for the money. Many would love $10M to invest in a lab or fund their Nobel dream research. Many scientists love their work. It is like the Iowa farmer who won five million in the lottery. A reporter asked him what he would do with the money. His answer was "I'll probably just keep farming till it is gone."

Re:That's stupid. (1)

firex726 (1188453) | about a year ago | (#44693371)

Also it'd likely be going to a team, and they would of course need access to a pretty high tech lab to even compete.

Re:That's stupid. (1)

Dcnjoe60 (682885) | about a year ago | (#44695181)

The winner will retire, one productive scientist less.

Very few scientists are in it for the money. Many would love $10M to invest in a lab or fund their Nobel dream research. Many scientists love their work. It is like the Iowa farmer who won five million in the lottery. A reporter asked him what he would do with the money. His answer was "I'll probably just keep farming till it is gone."

Oh, such altruistic scientists. Scientists most definitely are in it for the money. It's called publish or perish. It's just that they don't get to benefit directly from the money, their university does and in return they get to keep their job. But, don't kid yourself, they have bills to pay, kids to send to college and plain old greed, just like everybody else. If that weren't the case, there wouldn't need to be an XPrize to begin with.

Re:That's stupid. (1)

N0Man74 (1620447) | about a year ago | (#44697121)

Oh, such altruistic scientists. Scientists most definitely are in it for the money. It's called publish or perish. It's just that they don't get to benefit directly from the money, their university does and in return they get to keep their job. But, don't kid yourself, they have bills to pay, kids to send to college and plain old greed, just like everybody else. If that weren't the case, there wouldn't need to be an XPrize to begin with.

I don't think you understand the difference between "being in it for the money", and "being able to survive while doing it"...

I think the assessment that they aren't in it for the money is completely accurate, but they doesn't negate the fact that they want to continue being in it, and not be in poverty.

Sounds pretty stupid to me... (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year ago | (#44692867)

For anyone who would have the equipment and experts to do it... 10 million would be chump change not worth their time and equipment.

Re:Sounds pretty stupid to me... (1)

Jmc23 (2353706) | about a year ago | (#44692913)

You sound pretty stupid. $10,000,000 - $1000 per 100 people = $9,900,000 for 30 days work or $33k a day after cost!

Re:Sounds pretty stupid to me... (2)

Samantha Wright (1324923) | about a year ago | (#44692957)

Not as great as it sounds—you need to consider the R&D costs too. Those could easily run into the millions, especially when you're building a device that can cost as much as half a million and requires innovative, scalable analytical biochemistry and biophysics. I don't know the exact industry figures, but I think the anonymous commenter is probably more right than not.

Re:Sounds pretty stupid to me... (1)

Jmc23 (2353706) | about a year ago | (#44693035)

Except that if you're in the business the R&D costs are par for the course, you HAVE to do that anyways to stay relevant. Do you want to be industry standard or leading the industry? This isn't one of those Xprises where joe and his mom can enter.

Re:Sounds pretty stupid to me... (1)

Samantha Wright (1324923) | about a year ago | (#44693135)

But it still leaves the point that the prize being too small may have been part of the reason why there were only two entrants. There are lots of players in the sequencing game, but as arobatino [slashdot.org] pointed out, the industry has slowed to a halt because it's not currently profitable to push the boundaries of technology—sequencing companies make all of their money from selling chemicals (much like printer companies and ink) and the demand just hasn't been escalating like they hoped. The X-Prize is thus a way to justify trying to meet the goals set out by the competition organizers due to short-term profitability, and if it's too low, then not many groups are going to try and pursue it (as demonstrated.)

Re:Sounds pretty stupid to me... (1)

Jmc23 (2353706) | about a year ago | (#44693269)

Though to be honest, a 25% participation rate isn't anything horrible, in fact, has any XPrize had more participation from established companies? You have to bet against future profits as well. If the current standard is $5000, a 5x reduction in price should make you incredibly attractive to anyone looking to sequence. The XPrize people are just being dicks towards those who have outlayed cash to try and accomplish this.

Re:Sounds pretty stupid to me... (1)

Samantha Wright (1324923) | about a year ago | (#44693869)

There are actually about a couple dozen companies that could realistically compete, in addition to labs like Church's. (This list [nature.com] includes them, along with some ancillary service companies.) The eight participants mentioned were merely those parties that had announced intent earlier; the rules have been revised and the other six gave up. The fact that it never attracted participants like Illumina, arguably the biggest name in sequencing, shows that the technology just isn't commercially viable enough, even with the possibility of the $10M subsidy if they win.

Cost hasn't been dropping for a long time (5, Informative)

arobatino (46791) | about a year ago | (#44692881)

What we realized is that genome sequencing technology is plummeting in cost and increasing in speed independent of our competition. Today, companies can do this for less than $5,000 per genome, in a few days or less - and are moving quickly towards the goals we set for the prize.

If you look at the graphs at https://www.genome.gov/sequencingcosts/ [genome.gov] what it actually shows is that after plummeting faster than Moore's Law for 3 years between 2008 and 2011, the cost has been basically flat for the past year and a half, probably due to lack of competition [blogspot.com] .

Re:Cost hasn't been dropping for a long time (1)

Teancum (67324) | about a year ago | (#44693649)

What exactly is the market for sequencers and people wanting to know their DNA sequence? It doesn't sound exactly like a mass consumer item, except perhaps those who want to spend some time on Jerry Springer's TV show (or other talk shows that do DNA matches between random boyfriends and the babies of unwed mothers). A lack of competition also seems to be a lack of customers. No doubt there are people who are willing to pay for sequencing at the current price (including several government agencies for various purposes) along with a few corporate customers who need DNA analysis for various products as well as genuine R&D that can afford the current price as well.

If the market isn't expanding rapidly with a substantial drop in price, the price is unlikely to drop, hence a substantial flattening of the market price.

No doubt there could be a real genuine market for hospitals and medical clinics to basically sequence every patient including every newborn for real medical diagnosis.... but the price is not really at the point where insurance companies would pay for this and it is not something an ordinary person would be willing to pay for such sequencing either, certainly not for a full genome analysis. The whole heath care system in 1st world countries is hardly a free market, so that really skews things to basically be a limited number of companies that would end up actually paying for this kind of sequencing.... hence another reason for relatively flat prices.

A similar kind of market situation exists with orbital rocket launching companies, where the absence of customers is also causing rocket prices to stagnate. Only a relatively recent increase in new markets for spaceflight has there been any real competition... and government contracts still dominate the landscape.

Re:Cost hasn't been dropping for a long time (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year ago | (#44693881)

The market is flat because there is currently not a lot of competition because the current round has been won by Illumina, and they were able to drive their competition from the field. They had enough in reserves that they could run with razor thin margins, or even loss leaders, until other companies just folded. Things will get interesting when the next generation of sequencing technology comes online.

If you're interested in paternity testing, genome sequencing isn't really worth it. Like DNA fingerprinting used in law enforcement operations, it's effective, but it lacks the resolution that you get with a real genetic test.

One big problem in the United States, but not in other 1st world countries is the health care system. Let's say it's $5k to run a genome. Who's going to pay that? The insurance company who stands to benefit from cost saving based on accurately prescribing medicine and preventative treatments? What's the ROI on that? How long until you break even? How long does the average consumer stick with an insurance company? If the average person sticks with an insurance company in the US for less than 2 years, and it takes 5 years to break even on the investment, who's going to foot the bill? Now, in countries with Single Payer insurance, it makes a lot more sense, and you'll be seeing more of that in the near future.

One other problem is privacy. Let's say you get sequenced. Who owns that data? Who can access it? Who can make decisions about your employment, your insurance rates, your chances of adopting a child or a myriad of other things. There aren't laws yet in the US to protect that data, and yet allow it to be used appropriately.

The potential market for sequencing is actually quite large, but it's dominated right now by something approaching a monopoly, so the price isn't going to change much until there's a new player on the block.

Re:Cost hasn't been dropping for a long time (1)

Teancum (67324) | about a year ago | (#44696069)

The potential market for sequencing is actually quite large, but it's dominated right now by something approaching a monopoly, so the price isn't going to change much until there's a new player on the block.

You are missing my point of a monopsony [wikipedia.org] existing within the marketplace of sequencing right now as well. You even explained why it is a problem right now in your very own post. If anything monopsonies are far worse economically than even monopolies (just look at what Wal-Mart does to its suppliers if you want to see an example of this in the retail market place).

Until that logjam of monopolies and monoponies are broken, there will likely not be any sort of significant price reduction.

Surprisingly, it was the X-Prize foundation who broke that logjam in the space transportation industry... and prices have dropped to between 1/3rd to 1/10th of what it was before the space prize competition happened. Unfortunately the same situation doesn't exist for the genomics sequencing industry right now.

Re:Cost hasn't been dropping for a long time (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year ago | (#44694677)

I'd have guessed the problem would be accuracy. Shotgun DNA sequencing is hopelessly inaccurate. Imagine if you asked me to recover a damaged hard disk full of photographs and I sent you fifty million 32x32 pixel blocks stitched together into correctly sized rectangular images so that the borders of the blocks sort-of match up. The results would of course be a horrible mess and you'd demand a refund. Sure, there are things you can recognise, it's clearly your photos, but they're been trashed by the shitty reconstruction process. That's what shotgun sequencing does to your DNA.

The size of the errors is inestimable, what we know so far is that we don't know how bad it is. Good news: The processes are repeatable. Bad news: The repeatable process clearly doesn't give the correct answers compared to the slow, tedious methods that won't scale to a whole genome.

Re:Cost hasn't been dropping for a long time (1)

Immerman (2627577) | about a year ago | (#44700609)

Citation?

From what I've heard of shotgun DNA sequencing a better analogy would be if you made thousands of copies of an encyclopedia and randomly chopped all of them into fragments from dozens to thousands of characters long, depending on the specific technology used. If you did it to only one copy it would be essentially impossible to reconstruct the original, but with thousands of copies each line will be included in thousands of fragments, allowing you to start with one shard and find other fragments that are identical where they overlap, but add a few more characters before or after. Any time you encounter a systematic inconsistency you know that you've discovered a DNA sequence that occurs in multiple locations, much like the chorus in a song. If the fragments are longer than the "chorus" then at least some will completely span it, resolving the inconsistencies. Otherwise they essentially become boundary markers, delimiting sections whose order can't be automatically resolved without more information.

Couple that with the fact that the vast majority of each individual's DNA is shared by all members of their species, and sequencing a single individual (or small sample) with a technique that uses fragments substantially longer that the delimiting sections will allow you to resolve the inconsistencies by creating a "map" that should allow the species-wide elements of each delimited section to be fit into a cohesive and accurate whole.

The cheapest and least-accurate shotgun analysis technology listed here http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/DNA_sequencing [wikipedia.org] is Illumina's, which can read between 50 and 250 base pairs per fragment, and recreates the original DNA with with an accuracy of 98%.

Re:Cost hasn't been dropping for a long time (1)

Dcnjoe60 (682885) | about a year ago | (#44695231)

What we realized is that genome sequencing technology is plummeting in cost and increasing in speed independent of our competition. Today, companies can do this for less than $5,000 per genome, in a few days or less - and are moving quickly towards the goals we set for the prize.

If you look at the graphs at https://www.genome.gov/sequencingcosts/ [genome.gov] what it actually shows is that after plummeting faster than Moore's Law for 3 years between 2008 and 2011, the cost has been basically flat for the past year and a half, probably due to lack of competition [blogspot.com] .

Or it could be simple supply and demand and the market, so to speak, has reached equilibrium. With cuts in federal research dollars, manufacturers of sequencers can either lower the price of their wares or leave the price alone and not sell any. It's basic econ 101.

Re:Cost hasn't been dropping for a long time (1)

Grantbridge (1377621) | about a year ago | (#44696287)

Another factor is the experimental costs don't include the computation costs of assembling the sequences afterwards. At the moment this is probably comparable to the experimental costs for hardware, electricity and paying someone competent to do it. (Turning a few Terabytes of ~100base pair reads into one whole 400 megabase genome isn't trivial.)

Genetic bomb (-1, Troll)

Anonymous Coward | about a year ago | (#44693011)

What we need is some kind of genetic weapon that attacks specific races. Imagine if you will, a virus that attacks and kills spics and/or negroes and/or muslims. It would be like a comb, a comb which groomed away the hominid lice that infect decent societies. It would leave the decent, productive, producers of wealth untouched. It would wisk away the societal parasites like negroes and spics who leech of us all, sucking the treasury and taxpayer dry. No more EBT cards. No more "Section 8" housing. No more WIC vouchers. No more medicaid. No more parasites. Just brew up and release a virus that will clean them out. That IS what the XPrize should foster and incubate.

Re:Genetic bomb (nope) (1)

thunderclap (972782) | about a year ago | (#44693435)

Ok, since two people actually modded this up, I bite. You want to build a genetic weapon that eliminates races because they are poor? Or because you blame them for negative behaviors? No you don't. Because if this was created (which it can't because you seem to tie skin pigment with social ills) the Arab races could use this to do the exact same thing. You see, they believe just like you that they are the decent society and everyone else needs to be groomed away, as you say.
As for the xprize itself, there is too much greed. Yes, greed. Not everything should be about profit. Its stagnant because no one wants to sink billions into finding a cure for the betterment of everyone. To be clear, no one wants to be the one that gives billions for no other reason that to make the better place. Until someone does, this is how things will go.

Re:Genetic bomb (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year ago | (#44693707)

This sounds like a science fiction film.

Unfortunately (for you) you're the villain.

Slashdot brings you last week's news (1)

damn_registrars (1103043) | about a year ago | (#44693093)

This was last friday [genomeweb.com] .

Re:Slashdot brings you last week's news (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year ago | (#44693565)

This was last friday [genomeweb.com] .

So what kept you from posting a story about this article yourself on Friday or Saturday?

Surprised? (1)

Ed The Meek (3026569) | about a year ago | (#44693229)

Why? It's not like every Mom & Pop operation around could enter this contest to begin with....

Cancelled because winning was a possibility? (1)

drunken_boxer777 (985820) | about a year ago | (#44693277)

According to the TFA, the prize was cancelled because advances in technology have enabled teams to actually win. Hmm...

1. Hold contest to motivate scientists to achieve technological leaps
2. Cancel contest when winning is inevitable
3. Profit!

Re:Cancelled because winning was a possibility? (1)

EmperorArthur (1113223) | about a year ago | (#44693563)

You forgot the part where only two companies entered. Sure it's a race, but it's not much of one.

Re:Cancelled because winning was a possibility? (1)

kanweg (771128) | about a year ago | (#44693709)

"You forgot the part where only two companies entered. Sure it's a race, but it's not much of one."

Watching the contest in progress would not be a spectator sport. The goal is not a spectacular race. The objective of the XPrize is to achieve a spectacular goal, by providing a financial incentive. For that reason, two contestants is enough to provide a drive to be first. After all, in XPrizes every contestant other than the winner is cannon fodder (contestant who ends up with nothing).

By canceling the prize, the goal will be reached later. Hurray. :-(

Bert

From a post by arobatino above:
If you look at the graphs at https://www.genome.gov/sequencingcosts/ [genome.gov] [genome.gov] what it actually shows is that after plummeting faster than Moore's Law for 3 years between 2008 and 2011, the cost has been basically flat for the past year and a half, probably due to lack of competition [blogspot.com].

Re:Cancelled because winning was a possibility? (1)

bill_mcgonigle (4333) | about a year ago | (#44693943)

Sure it's a race, but it's not much of one.

And if either of them 'won', then humanity wins. What's the overhead in running the contest? This makes no sense based on the given excuses.

Re:Cancelled because winning was a possibility? (1)

AK Marc (707885) | about a year ago | (#44694063)

The expectation is that one or both will "win" without the prize, so re-allocation of the prize money will benefit the world better than continuing this particular contest.

damn (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year ago | (#44693405)

I've been jacking off into a jar for nothing!

Re: damn (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year ago | (#44697157)

Is that you Big Gulper?

Life sucks! (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year ago | (#44693577)

We don't want to live longer! We want to live on Mars! For three years then we die! On Mars! What is it with the death fetish and Space Nutters?

sometimes traditional funding works well (1)

Goldsmith (561202) | about a year ago | (#44696669)

Genomics is an incredibly well funded field. This is not like rocketry where the core technology is only used by a few big contractors and government agencies. There are hundreds of very competent small contract research organizations in the US competing for business.

Looking just at the "non-traditional cutting edge hardware" part of genetics, DARPA has a $50M+ program, Living Foundries, that many of the people mentioned in the X-Prize have won grants under.

When you have a situation where even fringe ideas are well funded in powerhouse mainstream laboratories (i.e. George Church), things will move along pretty well.

(Prices for sequencing haven't dropped significantly in the last few years, but what do you expect? There needs to be some time in between hardware upgrade cycles, not everyone is Intel. The last few years haven't exactly been the best, economically.)

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