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November 07, 2012

Software Engineers Grab Opportunity, Move to the Fore through Programs that Sift Genetic Sequence

In the war on cancer, software engineers are moving to the fore. Leading to the next medical breakthrough, they’re designing programs that sift genetic sequencing data at lightning speed and minimal cost to identify patterns in tumors.

Their analysis aims to pinpoint the mutations in our genetic code that drive cancers as diverse as breast, ovarian and bowel.

The more precise their work is, the better the chance of developing an effective new drug. 

Ever since the structure of DNA was discovered in 1953 by James Watson and Francis Crick, scientists have been puzzled over how genes make us who we are. The pace of genetic research is accelerated by the confluence of computing and medicine, but making sense of the swathes of data has become a logjam.

For computer geeks and tech firms such as Microsoft, SAP and Amazon, this in turn has created an opportunity. Oncology is the largest area of therapy in the global drugs industry, with market researcher IMS predicting it will increase to $83-$88 billion by 2016 from $62 billion in 2011.

As the driver of this growth, using computers to decipher a person's genetic instructions, computational genomics, and the mutations in cancerous cells is emerging.

Image via Shutterstock

From a cell sample, Life Technologies Corp. and Illumina, Inc. are among the firms developing equipment that can extract a person's entire genetic code – their genome. Compared with six to eight weeks a few years ago, the newest machines are about the size of an office printer and can sequence a genome in a day.

Compared to $100,000 dollars in 2008, they can read the 3.2 billion chemical "bases" that comprise the human genetic code for $1,000.

"Many labs can now generate the data, but fewer people or labs have the expertise and infrastructure to analyze it – this is becoming the bottleneck," said Gad Getz. Jointly run by MIT and Harvard, Getz heads the Cancer Genome Analysis group at the Broad Institute in Boston.

Edited by Braden Becker

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