SCIENCE & ENGINEERING NEWS
Toronto, CANADA — When a company as well-known as IBM Corp. gets behind something as cutting-edge as First Genetic Trust, a new repository for all your most personal DNA secrets, it’s clear something big is happening. That something is bioinformatics, the use of computers to sift through the mind-boggling amounts of data collected in the study of genetics.
“We see tremendous need for high-performance supercomputing,” says Dr. Carol Kovac, vice-president of IBM’s newly formed Life Sciences business unit.
The company is working on a specialized supercomputer – dubbed Blue Gene – that is expected to be 100 times faster than the IBM machine used by the U.S. government to test its nuclear arsenal.
Other giant technology companies like Motorola and Oracle and a few small Canadian firms are also looking for ways to tap this new market. But few have the financial resources of IBM – not to mention long-standing contacts and one of the best-known names in business.
Recently, IBM committed $100 million US over the next 2Ω years to the Life Sciences unit to adapt the company’s vast array of products and services for the bioinformatics industry.
The first coup for IBM Life Sciences was announced last week: an agreement to supply security and computer services to the new Chicago company called First Genetic Trust, backed by a leading scientist.
Dr. Arthur Holden conceived of First Genetic Trust as a safe place for people to keep their most personal information, the genetic analysis that describes the chemical makeup of one’s entire body.
Holden says many people are afraid to give their genetic code to a government agency or a huge conglomerate. But they may learn to trust a specialized business like his.
“By putting that in a third-party environment, we hope to create an openness among individuals,” Holden says.
First Genetic Trust is modelled after a bank. Customers will have accounts that will hold genetic code, not money. Only the customers will be able to decide how their accounts are used.
In the long run, perhaps 20 years from now, individuals may be able to sit with their doctor, download some of the genetic information over the Internet and use it to select a treatment or drug, Holden says.
But for the next few years, First Genetic will be mainly a buffer between pharmaceutical companies doing genetic research and individuals – guaranteeing to protect the people who have agreed to DNA analysis.
It remains to be seen whether Holden can convince the public of First Genetic’s independence. The company’s main source of revenues for the foreseeable future will be fees paid by drug companies for access to the information in First Genetic’s database.
And there’s no guarantee that First Genetic will succeed. New Economy companies like drkoop.com, WebMD and Canada’s Medbroadcast have struggled to survive as suppliers of medical information.
But it’s easy to see why IBM is willing to invest heavily in the bioinformatics market, which is currently worth less than a $1 billion US a year in the United States.
Celera Genomics, the Maryland company that’s a leader in the effort to map human DNA, already has 70 terabytes of genetic information online – enough to fill a shelf of CD-ROMs a kilometre long.
“That’s just the beginning of what we’re seeing in Life Sciences,” Kovac says. “We’re really just at the beginning of this world.”