At the intersection of business and science, University researchers are looking to find innovative solutions to some complex genetic puzzles — and now they are getting some help.
Team GENOMENON, a collaboration of three University pathologists who are developing software to analyze human genomes, was awarded a total of $40,000 Feb. 14 as part of the Michigan Collegiate Innovation Prize. The money, along with training provided through the National Science Foundation’s Innovation Corps, is intended to help Team GENOMENON and other similar projects transition their research from designs to commercial products.
The Center for Entrepreneurship and College of Engineering hosted the statewide contest, which drew participants from 16 Michigan colleges and universities. After rounds of interviews, 23 finalists were chosen. Team GENOMENON was selected as the overall winner.
Mark Kiel, a third-year pathology resident at the University’s Medical School, worked extensively on the project’s computer coding. He said the technology has the potential to significantly reduce the time required to analyze a person’s genome, which could have major clinical applications for patients with cancer and genetic diseases.
Although methods exist to analyze the human genome, it currently takes days or weeks for clinicians to analyze the raw data. This is not only expensive, but can put patients with serious illnesses in danger as they wait for results.
The average human genome contains about three billion units, known as base pairs, which provide the information necessary for all life processes. The new program could eventually bring the time it takes to analyze these units down to hours or even minutes, Kiel said
“Particularly with cancer, the difference in analytic time — minutes to hours versus days to weeks — could mean the survival of the patient,” Kiel said. “The trajectory of the decrease in cost and time actually supports the idea that we’ll eventually be able to do this in a couple of hours.”
Kiel added that the algorithms speed up the process to finding the clinical scenario, or what is most important for a patient’s status.
While Kiel said cancer treatment is probably the most immediate application of the new technology, many diseases have genetic components. With better understanding of a patient’s genomic sequence — the specific order of base pairs in their genome — physicians can adopt more targeted treatments, leading to better outcomes.
In the more distant future, physicians will likely be able to perform complex genetic analysis at a patient’s bedside in real time, although the technology needed to accomplish this is likely five to 10 years away from development.
Amy Klinke, associate director of corporate relations at the Center for Entrepreneurship, said the contest deviated from many business competitions that funnel resources to a couple of successful teams. Instead, MCIP provided training in customer discovery strategies to all of the 23 semifinalists before hearing their pitches.
“We really wanted to turn that into a pipeline, where every team that entered had the opportunity to start a venture,” Klinke said.
The competition’s adjusted format was intended to provide the best chance for successful business development and prevent common oversights. For instance, Klinke said many researchers try to bring products to market without a detailed knowledge of their consumer base, leading to small mistakes that make their products less viable.
“It turns out, if you did something slightly different, people would really want it,” Klinke said. “A lot of companies fail that way — by not talking to their customers.”
As for team GENOMENON, Kiel said it plans to use its funding and training to continue testing its new website, which will allow physicians to securely upload genetic information and almost instantaneously receive feedback on their patients’ condition.
“What we’ve learned already is pretty amazing, but there’s so much more that’s yet to be discovered,” Kiel said. “There’s no question in my mind that we’re going to have a doubling or a quadrupling of our understanding of the genome — in terms of how it contributes to disease and how it contributes to normal human characteristics.”