Report stirs debate over the true impact of the genomics revolution

A new study asserts that the $14.5 billion federal tab for genomics research has paid off handsomely, with close to a trillion dollars in returns. But it didn't take long for the report to start attracting critics for the kind of math that was used by analysts at Battelle.

Battelle did the report for a group called United for Medical Research, which has a mission of advocating for a bigger investment in the NIH. And Battelle says it could track $965 billion in economic impact from the genomics field--all linked to the thriving life sciences sector that has emerged in the wake of the Human Genome Project.

"Between 1988 and 2012, the federal government's $14.5 billion investment in the field of genomics represents an expenditure of only $2 per year per U.S. resident, with an enormous economic and societal impact from that investment," said Martin Grueber, research leader, Battelle and co-author, "The Impact of Genomics on the U.S. Economy."

For Francis Collins, the NIH chief who helped spearhead the HGP, the report offered fresh fodder for his lobbying effort with Congress as lawmakers continue to squeeze the NIH as the economy stumbles along in low gear.

The study, though, was designed to demonstrate huge returns. And not everyone likes the formula that was used in this study, a follow-up to an earlier report on genomics. University of Chicago economist Robert Topel told Nature that Battelle went off on the wrong track trying to count jobs and economic impact. "The question is: what health benefits have people got out of it, and what will they get in the future?"

Nature pointed to a 5-year old study that found only $2.50 to $3 of returns for every dollar spent on R&D, a long way from the whopping $178 found by Battelle.

But maybe they're missing the big picture. Greg Lucier, the CEO of Life Technologies, says the genomics drive has transformed the life sciences industry and drug development in general, pointing investigators to new discoveries that are creating drugs carefully targeted to specific patient populations.

"Up until (the genomic era), the pharmaceutical industry was able to have major impact on human health through blockbuster drugs that in retrospect were relatively simple," Lucier told Bloomberg. "The ushering in of the genomic era was the beginning of truly reducing science to engineering, in terms of the understanding of life."

- here's the release on the study
- read the Nature report
- see the report from Bloomberg