It’s in the Genes

Fact: America’s Finest City is the DNA sequencing capital of the world. (Who knew?)


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Ion Torrent Machine, Life Technologies
Ion Torrent Machine, Life Technologies

When San Diegan Brad Lally turned 45 last year, he decided his approaching middle age was the time to get a better handle on his health and fitness.

“I wanted to learn more about myself, and specifically, more about my body,” says the global development manager for a local scuba diving equipment company.

So Lally turned to cardiologist Samir Damani, who runs MD Revolution in La Jolla, a 21st-century medical practice specializing in genetic counseling.

Damani closely examined data from Lally’s DNA to see what genetic factors might impact his health, and set up a diet and exercise plan that fit his profile, as well as what he needs to look out for, such as various cancers and cardiovascular diseases.

 “This is the way that medicine is going to be practiced in the future,” said Dr. Damani, who does take insurance and the cost of the programs is customized to the individuals' needs.

DNA’s now big business, to say the least, and the concentration of both basic research and commercialization of that research has made San Diego the DNA capital of the world.

The region becoming the hub of the lucrative activity surrounding DNA, from research to manufacturing to patient care in the doctor’s office, should come as no surprise to local residents.

Indeed, BIOCOM, the local life sciences trade group, says the life sciences sector (which includes all the activity surrounding DNA R&D) accounts for more than 106,000 direct and indirect jobs, and pumps more than $12 billion annually into the local economy.

It all starts with research, which is where San Diego has a notable leg up on the rest of the planet.

San Diego serves as the home base for DNA pioneer Craig Venter, who was the first to sequence the human genome back in 2001, beating the lumbering Human Genome Project to the punch.

The rugged, 60-something Venter heads the eponymous nonprofit J. Craig Venter Institute, with 300 employees in La Jolla (and Rockville, Maryland), which will be moving its local operations to a more expansive 45,000-square-foot laboratory on the UCSD campus when construction is completed in 2013.

It’s become one of the go-to places for the latest research into the mysteries of the human genome.

Venter is also CEO at Synthetic Genomics Inc., the La Jolla-based privately held startup that is trying to create synthetic genes that can be put into industrial production to make such things as biofuels.

But that’s just the beginning.

Public company Illumina, Inc. is one of the global giants of the burgeoning DNA sequencing industry.

The San Diego company’s HiSeq brand machines have proven popular with government and academic research scientists as well as with commercial researchers, such as those in the pharmaceutical industry, and the company is working in a number of areas ranging from domestic plant research to farm animals.

The company is locked in a head-to-head market battle with Carlsbad-based Life Technologies Corporation for low-end ($125,000 or less) tabletop machines that can sequence important portions of a genome.

Life Technologies says it will start shipping its low-end sequencing competition later this year, which means that small clinics and laboratories will be able to afford such devices.

Indeed, such price drops puts the technology within reach of just about anyone who wants to know what they’re made of, at least big chunks of it.

Privately held BioNanomatrix Inc., which moved to San Diego from Philadelphia last year, has been on a five-year quest for the Holy Grail of genomics research: the ability to sequence the human genome for $100 or less in eight hours or less.

The company was on Technology Review magazine’s 2009 list of 10 emerging technologies that promise to change the way we live and do business.

Damani takes saliva samples from his inquisitive patients like Lally and sends them to one of two genetic testing laboratories he’s working with, Sorrento Valley’s Pathway Genomics Corporation, launched in 2009, or La Jolla’s Cypher Genomics Inc., spun off from the Scripps Health system last year.

The two labs then use saliva samples to peer into a patient’s DNA to determine such factors as propensity for certain diseases or how one responds to certain medications, or whether young couples are carriers of crippling genetic conditions that could show up in their offspring.

Other labs in the region offer similar services.

To be sure, critics say DNA testing is not quite ready for prime time. They argue the results are too imprecise, and can’t predict a person’s future health condition.

But Pathway Genomics founder and CEO James Plante says the tests can tell whether a patient is at a higher risk or lower risk for a wide variety of ailments, which is important data to have in someone’s medical record.

“It’s going to be in everyone’s medical record in the future,” he says.

Plante says growing demand will help keep San Diego in the forefront of DNA research and commercialization for years to come, and bolster its fast-growing reputation in the new field of health informatics.

“We’re just in the beginning stages,” he says. “The industry has lots of room to grow, and San Diego is sure to grow with it.”

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