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XPrize Pulls Plug on $10 Million Genomics Competition

26 August 2013 5:30 pm
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National Human Genome Research Institute

DNA. An XPrize contest would have sequenced 100 human genomes.

The XPrize Foundation has scrapped its high-profile $10 million genomics challenge set for next month after attracting only two competitors to the sequencing contest.

The Archon Genomics XPRIZE began with much fanfare 7 years ago with the aim of boosting medical genomics by offering a $10 million award to the first team to sequence 100 human genomes in 10 days for no more than $10,000 each. After complaints about the tight deadline and unclear judging criteria, the foundation revised the rules in October 2011: The objective was to sequence the genomes of 100 centenarians with high accuracy and 98% completeness within 30 days for $1000 or less. Interest was tepid, however, and only two of the eight contenders in the original contest registered by the 31 May deadline—the company Ion Torrent, and George Church’s lab at Harvard University. 

That meager showing had the foundation “considering options,” XPrize Senior Advisor Larry Kedes commented in June. And late last week (22 August), XPrize CEO Peter Diamandis announced in The Huffington Post that the foundation was calling off the contest because it “was not incentivizing the technological changes” laid out by the XPrize board and the genomics prize’s chair, genome sequencer J. Craig Venter. Companies are already sequencing genomes in a few days for $5000 and “are moving quickly towards the goals we set for the prize,” Diamandis wrote.

XPrize Senior Director Grant Campany says the fact that only two competitors signed up suggested that the $10 million prize wasn’t a sufficient incentive for sequencing companies, which are already making hundreds of millions of dollars, to invest their R&D funds in the challenge. At the same time, he says, no company is sequencing whole genomes to the accuracy the contest required—as Nature noted in May, the focus is on less accurate sequences and the subset of the genome that codes for proteins. “Nobody’s clamoring for it,” Campany says. “We’re fighting against the market in some respects.”

The aborted contest has yielded two resources. Cell lines with DNA from more than 100 donors who have lived at least a century are stored at the Coriell Institute for Medical Research in Camden, New Jersey; the genomes will now be sequenced anyway and shared with the research community, Campany says. The contest also produced a protocol for validating sequencing data that he hopes “will be a useful tool” for researchers.

The foundation in Playa Vista, California, which has previously awarded prizes for projects such as spacecraft and oil cleanup, had never before cancelled a contest. The $10 million prize money will go back to the philanthropist who donated it, Stewart Blusson, president of Archon Minerals.

Church, who says he’s spent “embarrassing” amounts of money to prepare (“with quite a lot to show for it,” he adds), calls the decision “a totally avoidable slap at innovators.” He disagrees that two contestants wasn’t enough—only two teams compete in the Super Bowl, he points out. He also questions the argument that companies were getting there anyway. “Is this going to be standard XPRIZE policy—to cancel if there is too much progress—at the last minute?”

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