Latimer: Human genome bank online will be a game changer

Google plans to store entire copies of the human genome online.

For several years I have expressed my excitement about the possibilities for medicine that will undoubtedly be unleashed as we more fully explore and understand our genetics.

It seems that every new paper or bit of information is moving us closer and closer to an eventual ability to create much more targeted treatments for many conditions based on the individual’s genetic blueprint.

I still believe this ability will be a game changer for many areas of medicine.

And so it is with enthusiasm I have been reading about the latest genetic information project Google is undertaking.

Google plans to store entire copies of the human genome online.

The project is called Google Genomics and medical institutions are coming on board.

To date, Google has 3,500 genomes on its servers and has been dealing with space issues as to how to store such a vast amount of information.

Just one complete genome takes up about 100 gigabits of space, but when that is multiplied by billions it becomes a very large storage issue.

Some have been skeptical of the whole project because of this storage problem—but given the speed at which technology has advanced in the past two or three decades, I don’t think this will be an issue for long.

Even Google has pointed out that when the Genome project began it took 15 years and $3 billion for the first human genome sequence. Today it can be done in a day for about $1,000.

Google’s long-term goal is to have all of this genetic information online for scientists to access and search as one centralized database.

I think this is a great opportunity for scientific collaboration and will in all likelihood launch our understanding and research forward very quickly.

Aside from the practical obstacles faced in developing this project, there are a few privacy questions to answer as well.

When we have the capability of storing every person’s genetic identity online, we will undoubtedly encounter situations when a person is unexpectedly found to have a rare disease but has not asked for that information.

Or when comparing genetic information, we will likely find family connections such as siblings the individual was not aware of or searching for.  Not to mention insurance companies and other corporate interests that would love to use information for business purposes.

These may present new ethical questions for the gatekeepers of all of this genetic information.

=Still, I think the benefits of this project will far outweigh the pitfalls and I think we will be able to come up with the creative solutions needed.

Until then, we can imagine the future of medicine as our understanding and treatment benefits from the ability to analyze and compare such vast amounts of information.