The University of New Mexico Cancer Center is adding a new tool to its kit to diagnose and fight cancer.
This fall the center will be among the first of a small number of sites worldwide to acquire a technology that can sequence an entire human genome in half a day for about $1,000. Whole genome sequencing now costs UNM about $10,000 per patient and takes an out-of-state company at least two weeks.
To get a sense of how much of a giant leap forward this is, consider that the human genome consists of about 3 billion DNA rungs in a ladder-like structure. Genome sequencing maps the complete DNA structure and can identify genetic changes, or mutations, that can cause disease.
The new Ion Proton Genome Sequencer, which essentially uses a silicon chip, will allow UNM researchers to sequence the entire genome, not just a small panel of cancer genes. Sequenced DNA from both healthy tissue and a cancerous tumor can be compared to identify harmful mutations.
Starting early next year, the center plans to sequence DNA in about 100 patients in the first year, focusing on leukemia, colorectal and breast cancer patients in a clinical study. While the new technology represents a significant step forward in cancer research for the center, it also raises legal, social and ethical questions, such as how to tell patients of previously unsuspected genetic diseases and conditions.
But the promise is that as doctors and researchers learn from the data that DNA sequencing will produce, they will be able to design new drugs to target the mutations that cause disease.
This editorial first appeared in the Albuquerque Journal. It was written by members of the editorial board and is unsigned as it represents the opinion of the newspaper rather than the writers.