What Would You Trade For the Genome?

February 20, 2008

Uncertain Chad responds to a reader suggestion regarding the cost of the Human Genome Project:

The Human Genome Project (yes, you have to pronounce those capitals) cost about $3 billion. If $3 billion were yours to spend on scientific research, how would you spend the money?

by polling the house:

For the sake of variety, let’s restrict it to your own particular subfield, so, for example, how would I spend three billion dollars on physics?

Once we get past physicists’ notorious tendency to settle for order-of-magnitude accuracy

How much did the Human Genome Project cost U.S. taxpayers?
In 1990, Congress established funding for the Human Genome Project and set a target completion date of 2005. Although estimates suggested that the project would cost a total of $3 billion over this period, the project ended up costing less than expected, about $2.7 billion in FY 1991 dollars. Additionally, the project is being completed more than two years ahead of schedule.

we can discuss how we might have preferred to spend $2.7 billion of the US taxpayers’ money.

First, sensitive to this comment at Highly Allocthonous, we had better specify that we’re talking about a US billion (a thousand million) rather than a British billion (a million million).
Next, let us translate this number into our unit of measure around here, the NIH R01 Research Project Grant. The NIH Office of Extramural Research site has this spreadsheet of award data showing that in Fiscal Year 2007 there were 27,850 new R01s awarded for a cost of $10,045,800,665 which I make out to be about $360,711 per R01 per year. To give a perhaps more intuitive way to look at a “typical” R01, we might use the modular grant cap of $250,000 in direct costs, apply a fairly typical 54% overhead rate to arrive at $385,000 per year. Since we’re talking pie-in-the sky, let’s go with this number. Also, the maximum funding duration for any competing proposal is 5 years so this brings us to a total project cost of $1,925,000. Remember that now.
Getting back to our treasure box of $2,700,000,000 we can translate this into 1,403 five-year R01 level projects. Just for grins, let’s go back to the OER data and see how many new research grants (not just R01s) are funded by selected IC’s each year. In FY 2007 NCI (1,395 new research awards) and NIAID (1,123) were the big dogs with NHLBI (896), NIGMS (730), NINDS (702), NIMH (683) and NIDDK (678) snapping at their heels. So adding 1,403 new grants to a particular subfield would appear to be a very significant contribution.
So where would YHN put the projects? Well, it may surprise you but my first choice would be…
Alzheimer’s Disease. You can find the stats about the scope of the public health problem, current and looming, by google but for me it boils down to two seat-of-the-pants. First, as a non-expert who is not really in the field, it looks solvable. We have seen a lot of progress into the mechanisms by which the Alzheimer’s definitive pathology is established and multiple highly-promising avenues of attack on the pathogenesis. Not to mention a range of highly creative therapeutic approaches including gene therapy and stem cells that are in their infancy and stand to advance treatment of a host of brain pathologies. Second, and perhaps most important, I think people find the loss of self that attends later stage AD to be one of the more frightening age-related conditions. Pain? Cancer? Heart attack? We can face those with a stiff upper lip. Losing some of the essential brain properties that make us who we really are? Anathema. Can you imagine what a glorious triumph it would be to actually cure one of the most familiar, seemingly inevitable and frightening neurodegenerative disorders?
How about you DearReader? Where would you spend $2.7 billion on science?
Update: The rockheads weigh in at Green Gabbro.

13 Responses to “What Would You Trade For the Genome?”

  1. Becca Says:

    Good question.
    I’m torn between HIV/TB/malaria and mental diseases broadly (Alzheimer’s included).


  2. whimple Says:

    I’d spend it sequencing the entire human genome.


  3. CC Says:

    As a molecular biologist, I find it hard to recall how we did anything before the genome was available, and I’m already running into younger colleagues who have never had to walk chromosomes or construct restriction maps.
    Given that:
    1) Giving up that $3 billion would involve giving up not just the genome sequence, but all the upstream data (STSs, ESTs, microsatellite maps), downstream data (SNPs, HapMap) and associated technology (microarrays, capillary sequencing). And not just for humans, but for mouse, fly and probably C. elegans.
    2) Presumably the newly funded projects would be less attractive than the currently funded ones. (If that’s not the case, then there’s a much deeper problem than $3B here and there, and no reason to expect anything from the new projects.)
    3) You need to factor in the loss of productivity, in both AD research and everywhere else, from sending the level of genomics back to 1992 per 1). (For the sake of argument, let’s say that Watson-free progression of the field would have brought us to 1995 by now.)
    Not for one second would I, even with a family history of AD, give that up so a bunch of fourth-tier academics could get their grants funded by appending “…and could lead to a treatment for Alzheimer’s Disease.” In hindsight, the HGP was a triumph and a bargain, and scientists should be celebrating it to the public, not engaging in their usual self-absorbed whining about why X isn’t funded instead.


  4. bsci Says:

    It doesn’t change the total #, but that $2.7 was spent over 13, not 5 years. Therebefore, a better analogy would be $208million per year. Based on a total guess I’d say that at least half that money went into developing technologies and methods that have been extremely useful to the larger biological science community (i.e. C.C.’s comment)
    That leaves about $100million per year that went into the brute force labor of sequencing the entire human genome. Still a lot of money, but not as dramatic as saying $2.7billion.


  5. Well, Whimple, CC and bsci have it covered pretty well—CC in particular, HHHOME RRRRUN.
    I would spend it (and double or triple that) on the Human Genome Project, if we had to make that decision over again. Given what has already come from it or due to it, and given what’s possible and coming in the future from it or due to it, there is no question in my mind that history will mark the HGP as one of the greatest bargains evvaah.
    Plus, the HGP has made “fishing expeditions” (knowledge for knowledge’s sake-KFKS- research) more acceptable. Hypothesis-driven research is great—but we also do need to keep studying things just because they are there. Tight budgets, priorities, competition etc inevitably eat away at KFKS research and have shifted the scales inordinately toward very focussed and hypo-driven models; and that’s bad because the greatest breakthroughs in science often emerge from unlikely or unexpected quarters. This is the rationale behind ALL exploration. Why should the genome be different?


  6. apalazzo Says:

    For argument’s sake the only justifiable physics program would be cold-fusion. But unlike the human genome project the potential benefits and the general outcome of the project would be uncertain.
    One problem that I see with the human genome project is that it was sold to the public as such a great advance in itself – yet in reality it had a tremendous impact on the entire biomedical community in so many different ways (as pointed out in the comments above). In fact you can make a good argument that the human genome project SAVED money by pooling time and energy into acquiring information that advanced all biomedical research. (Not to mention all the sequencing technology that is now taken for granted.)
    And that sad thing is that those poor saps at UP still don’t get it.


  7. apalazzo Says:

    cold fusion any kind of nuclear fusion


  8. cm Says:

    Pain? Cancer? Heart attack? We can face those with a stiff upper lip. Losing some of the essential brain properties that make us who we really are? Anathema.

    It is not cool to play PC vs. Mac with these terrible diseases. In terms of any serious disease, the worst disease you can have is whatever one you do have. Any of the diseases you listed are heartbreaking. Can we just leave it at that?


  9. DrugMonkey Says:

    No matter what the fizzycysts were up to with this, it was my intention neither to castigate the Genome Project nor to argue some disease is under/over funded. It was to mull over first what a fairly large sum of money directed to R01 scale projects would mean. Second to think about where such a fantastical application of funding would produce a result that was likely to be immediately understandable at a gut level to the public. “substantial advance in 30 different subfields”, even if by some senses it is a more useful outcome, “we cured Alzheimer’s” would be an order of magnitude or more better in terms of PR.


  10. CC Says:

    It was to mull over first what a fairly large sum of money directed to R01 scale projects would mean.
    Haven’t we just found that out? It means a wave of new and enlarged labs, followed by a tsunami of new grant applications and unemployable specialist postdocs just as the money runs out.
    Meanwhile, Collins, Gibbs, Lander and company have created a stable model of career scientists and interdisciplinary research that can be brought to bear on whatever new major efforts arise.


  11. yogi-one Says:

    Not a scientists here, just a member of the public. The only other thing I think could have generated such a benefit to the public would have been non-polluting, renewable energy sources on scales large enough to power civilization.
    I think that is coming down the tubes anyway (although it would have been nice to do it before causing a mass extinction event).
    Having said that I would agree that it was the right thing to spend the money on. In hindsight, we can always see how we could have trimmed the expenses, but at the time, we just needed to do it, and I am glad we did.


  12. With “gene therapy” practically down the drain, we are properly moving towards investigating biopsychosocial, gene-environment interactions.
    A real danger lies in the creation of “designer” genes and the corporate pursuit of its unethical commercialization.
    What an interesting era… we are moving closer and closer to the Great “Gene” Sale.


  13. Casey Says:

    Maybe a better question would be, on what would you have spent the 0.5-3 trillion dollars spent in the Iraq war to date?


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