Gore on the Genomics Race With China: Is the US Losing?

; Al Gore


March 07, 2014

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Editor's Note:
In this exclusive interview, former Vice President Al Gore speaks with Medscape Editor-in-Chief Eric Topol, MD, about China's investment in genomic medicine and what the US must do if it doesn't want to fall behind.

Eric J. Topol, MD: Hello. I'm Eric Topol, Medscape Editor-in-Chief, here for a One-on-One with former Vice President Al Gore. What we're going to be talking about is China and the genomics arms race.

You write about China in your book, The Future: Six Drivers of Global Change. Obviously, they've already set out to be the genomics capital of the world. They are sequencing people to understand the genomics of intelligence. You have a good global perspective here -- are they going to dominate in genomics and in life science in the years ahead?

Al Gore: They have, according to some reports, already spent over $100 billion in the past decade alone on basic R&D of technologies in these areas.

Dr. Topol: And they have more high-throughput DNA sequencers than anywhere in the world.

Mr. Gore: The Beijing Genomics Institute (BGI) has more sequencers than the entire United States of America, and that's just one of China's institutes. They have identified this effort as one of the pillars of their new economic blueprint. They're seemingly determined to spend unlimited sums of money. They've attracted in the past 3 years 80,000 Chinese-born Western-educated PhDs in these fields to come back to China. Now, maybe that's a great thing, and no one begrudges them that, but it's another indication of the size and scope of the commitment that they're making. I don't want to sound like a jingoist or an American beating my breast in a prideful way, but many do fear that the Chinese simply do not have the same commitment to the protection of individual values in the way that we in the West have come to love and appreciate those human values. And again, maybe that's a prejudiced way of thinking about it.

Dr. Topol: But the fact that they're sequencing high-IQ people and are trying to understand the genomics of intelligence, which isn't being pursued in the US or Europe or anywhere else -- that's kind of distinctive in a way.

Mr. Gore: It is distinctive, even when you consider what many regard as the practical difficulties of that design.

Dr. Topol: Exactly. They may not come up with anything.

Mr. Gore: But the idea that they are marching toward what some believe will be a practice in the future of sequencing every child, and using that knowledge in an effort to match people with the professions in which they are most likely to unlock their potential -- that's quite a startling development.

Of course, as you know far better than me, the speed with which sequencing is becoming cheaper is absolutely startling. We're all familiar with Moore's law, in which [Intel cofounder Gordon Moore observed] that the number of transistors on a chip doubled approximately every 2 years, and how that's correlated with a drop in pricing of computer chips, and computers themselves, by half every 18-24 months. And we understand what the implications of Moore's law are: We now have smartphones with more power than the biggest supercomputers of 30 or 40 years ago had.

So here's the point: The cost down-curve for genetic and genomic sequencing followed Moore's law up until roughly 2007. Then it started going down much faster than Moore's law. The cost of sequencing a genome went from $3 billion 20 years ago to just $1000 at the time of this interview. And at that current rate, we have to look at what the implications will be of a $10 sequencing cost, which will happen within a few short years. What will that do to the diagnostic ecosystem? What new opportunities and things to guard against will come about when we have a cost of sequencing that low? It'll be routine. It'll be a part of a routine exam all the time.

Dr. Topol: I know, and you pinpoint in your book that this is the first time in history that man has transcended what has been regarded as the most technological triumph of our existence -- Moore's law as it relates to computer chips, and it's being done through genomics and sequencing. What you are saying is so incredibly important. I'm dismayed that we, as a country, aren't supporting efforts in this regard. I'm sure you've watched the lack of support that we've had in genomics and how it compares to what's being done and what needs to be done on the global landscape.

Mr. Gore: I don't want to go back and dwell on the imbalance of political power, but let me use a quick example. We just saw the passage of a farm bill that funnels billions of dollars in unneeded, unwise, counterproductive mass subsidies to factory farmers and industrial agriculture operations that hurt the environment and that hurt the health of the American people. And it's going to people who are already extremely well-off.

At the same time, we see billions cut that should be spent on R&D and basic science opportunities in these incredibly exciting fields that can revolutionize healthcare and improve the quality of life for Americans. But we don't have a lobby to campaign for that money, and there are no campaign contributions being made to encourage funding in science. So the rich get richer, and the need for an allocation that benefits the public interest is diminished.

Dr. Topol: Well, this has been a fantastic interview. We've had the chance to get some unique perspectives from former Vice President Al Gore. And we look forward to more really interesting interviews in subsequent Medscape One-on-Ones.


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