This article was originally published on Science Progress
The era of medical genetic testing is upon us. At least that’s the impression one would get after reading this new Battelle report commissioned by The American Clinical Laboratory Association. The ACLA report shows the rapidly expanding genetic and genomic clinical laboratory testing industry in the United States currently supports 116,000 jobs and $16.5 billion in national economic output.
This report builds on earlier research from Battelle that looked more broadly at the economic impact and return on the federal investment in the Human Genome Project. The study of the HGP found that the public investment of $3.8 billion spread between 1988 and 2003 yielded $796 billion in economic output, and created nearly 4 million years of full-time employment, or job-years, between 1988 and 2010. This farsighted, bipartisan investment in genomics research helped seed new biotech industries, which in 2010 alone added $67 billion to U.S. gross domestic product—the largest measure of growth in our economy—created $20 billion in personal income for American families, and sustained 310,000 public- and private-sector jobs.
This $3.8 billion public investment in basic research yielded a 14,000 percent return for the economy, so it is no wonder that the ACLA is revisiting the investigation into public investment in biomedical research—it pays. The new study focused more narrowly on the economic impact of genetic and genomic clinical tests developed by the biomedical industry. Battelle’s new report brings to light figures about the benefits of genomic science and research that are just as impressive as the HGP results. According to the report:
Built upon U.S. investment in basic science and translational biomedical research, U.S. industry has produced a broad range of high-value biomedical technologies and products that create high-paying jobs and sustain America’s leadership in the modern innovation economy.
Spawned by the Human Genome Project itself, Battelle found that the genetic and genomic testing industry is currently contributing “more than 116,000 U.S. jobs; nearly $6 billion in personal income for U.S. workers; $9.2 billion in value-added activity; and $16.5 billion in national economic output.” The state and federal taxes collected from this young industry have states competing for the high-tech jobs and revenue generated by the highly profitable sector.
Battelle cites the states’ implementation of strategic planning to attract new biotech firms by “creating tax and regulatory environments to support and expand growing companies” and “supplying capital for facilities funding.” This 2008 report goes on to discuss the close working relationship states are developing with the firms to “develop and create a skilled workforce.” Now here is a jobs plan in action.
But looking beyond the numbers, the genetic testing industry is helping usher in a new era of biotechnology, personalized medicine, and forensics. According to the study, the genetic testing industry is already leading to positive outcomes in diverse fields such as:
Predicting risk of disease, screening newborns, directing clinical management, identifying carriers, and establishing prenatal or clinical diagnoses or prognoses in individuals, families, or population, as well as use for forensic and identity purposes.
The growth of this industry is paving the way for precision diagnoses and targeted therapies that improve health care outcomes. Oak Ridge National Laboratory says using genetic testing can give medical professionals a host of new tools to “clarify diagnoses” and make treatment more effective. One case in point: One study of genetic versus conventional diagnosis for retinoblastoma, a form of eye cancer, found the ability to act on “predictive” genetic tests “can help to save the vision and avoid unnecessary (and invasive) eye examinations for [patients] and their close relatives.” In conclusion the study found genetic diagnosis to be “cheaper” than conventional methods.
Treatments for diabetes, heart disease, Alzheimer’s, and cancer—all diseases thought to have hereditary indicators—comprise 75 percent of U.S. health care costs, according to the Centers for Disease Control. So the ability to detect these diseases through genetic testing long before the symptoms set in may reduce costs associated with costly emergency treatments, and improve the lives of many, though such knowledge comes with its own set of ethical questions, particularly in the case of Alzheimer’s.
But the promise of genetic testing and personalized medicine can only be attained if we continue to invest in publicly funded research, and if we are willing to make some tricky ethical choices, whether they mean choosing to know what’s in our genes, or allowing our genetic information to be used in large longitudinal data sets.
Even Craig Venter, a renowned NIH researcher and biotech CEO who famously competed with the federal government to help unravel the human genome, advocated for the need for federal investment in a hearing before the House Commerce Committee in 2003. “To enjoy the promise of personalized and preventative genomic medicine, we must compare the genomes of tens of thousands of people to better understand the genetic causes of complex diseases,” he said. “Going forward, it is critical that both the NIH and DOE continue to support innovative projects that constantly encourage technological innovation and drive down the costs of sequencing.”
The sequencing of the entire human has decreased “100 fold” since the first human genetic tests became available. The U.S. National Library of Medicine has found “The cost of genetic testing can range from under $100 to more than $2,000, depending on the nature and complexity of the test.” As of 2011, it cost just under $10,000 to sequence a person’s entire genome. That cost reflects a significant “outpacing of Moore’s Law” considering that the first genomes cost nearly $100 million to sequence. (see table)
The cost decrease of whole genome sequencing to $1,000 has long been the point at which it is considered cost effective enough to have as a standard medical test. According to the Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues, 2012 is likely to be “the year that the cost of whole genome sequencing will reach approximately $1,000.” And beyond the economics, the commission is also helping to sort through some of the ethics and privacy questions to genomic research, such as how whole-person genomic information is collected and stored, and what constitutes informed consent.
From the medical march toward increasing efficiency and accuracy in health care services, to the need to drive down costs, public investment in genetic medicine has provided new avenues for lawmakers and medical professionals to achieve their goals. The fact that such investment creates new industries and jobs is a silver lining that should make for easy legislative budgeting. As the debate rages on over whether or not government spending can create jobs or not, we need to continue to distinguish between spending and smart investments with positive economic and public health returns. As Battelle has once again demonstrated, federal funding for science, research, and development are some of the smartest investments we can make in our long-term economic future.
Jason Thomas is a Science Progress intern.
This article was originally published on Science Progress