Mapping the Brain – Medicine’s Next Human Genome Project: Interview with George Church, PhD

Earlier this month, President Obama announced the “BRAIN Initiative,” an effort to bring together scientists from private and public institutions to investigate how the brain’s 100 billion cells interact with each other. BRAIN – “Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies” – is expected to be the next major research effort in American biology, along the same scope and scale of the Human Genome Project. It could lead to many of the revolutions in medical technologies that the Human Genome Project did and we’re looking forward to covering those.

George Church, who is also a founding investigator of the Human Genome Project (HGP) and Personal Genome Project (PGP), was one of the six scientists who proposed the Brain Initiative in the summer of 2012. Dr. Church is one of the luminaries in genetics and human biology, and we had a chance to chat with him about the BRAIN Initiative.

Ravi Parikh, Medgadget: Could you give us a bit of your background? How did you go from working on the Human Genome Project to brain mapping?

George Church, PhD: I had been looking for common ground for my passions in computing and biology — then I found crystallography in 1973 and helped solve the 3D structure of the first folded nucleic acid.  I used this to predict the folding of many 1D sequences, which lead me to try to automate DNA sequencing beginning in 1977. From 1984 to 1986 I worked with Gail Martin on embryonic stem cells. In 1992 I collaborated with Chris Walsh and Connie Cepko on designing diverse retroviral barcode tags to study neuronal cell developmental lineages in the cerebral cortex.  Between 1990 and present I’ve worked on various technologies to harness ion channel conductances including “nanopore sequencing” and “molecular ticker tape”.

Medgadget:  What is brain mapping?

Church: The Brain Activity Map Project intends to go beyond brain wiring diagrams to measurements, modeling and manipulations of signals going through those wires (neurons).  Our goal is to lower the costs to enable a wide diversity of small science projects to be ever more powerful and creative and to improve the quality of current and new clinical applications.

Medgadget: How did the project come about?

Church: A meeting in Sep 2011 in Chicheley Hall UK organized by Kavli, Gatsby and Allen Foundations was intended simply to encourage Nano and Neuro scientists to communicate better.  A few of us already bridging these two fields came to the meeting with notions that a merger was overdue and could result in technology improvements similar to those that happened after the genome project.  We we discovered our common vision we decide to write a white paper to refine and expand these ideas.

Medgadget How do the applications of the Brain Activity Map compare to that of the Human Genome Project?

Church: We hope to learn from and outdo the HGP in the following ways:   (A) Most of the million fold reduction in costs occurred after the HGP was over (2004 to 2010). So we’d like to get that sort of benefit earlier in BAMP. (B) We’d like to encourage and listen to small science applications from the start. (C) Clinical applications of measuring and manipulating brain activity already exist, while there was no such context for the HGP when we first proposed it in 1984. (D) BAM will integrate modeling and testing from the start to increase interpretability and prioritization of the data collection.

Medgadget: One of the criticisms about the Human Genome Project is that it took relatively long to see benefits from it. What do you think the timeline of clinical applications for the Brain Activity Map project will be?

Church: See second answer above.  We have neural interfaces for patients with retinal, cochlear and tetraplegic conditions. We hope to have factors of two to ten-fold improvement in cost and/or quality each year starting in 2013.

Medgadget: The Brain Activity Map was recently mentioned in President Obama’s State of the Union Address. Could you talk about the public response to the project after that speech?

Church: The SOTUA [State of The Union Address] was not that explicit but subsequent comments from other prominent government officials connected the dots to BAM. Although we had engaged the neuro and nano communities in a half dozen meetings since 2011, the proponents of BAM were expecting a bit more time to get a clear statement published (in Neuron, Science, and ACS Nano) .  The response has been a predictable mixture of support and constructive critique.   As we have clarified points the enthusiasm seems to be growing.

Medgadget: The President mentioned that for every $1 invested in the Human Genome Project, $140 was returned to the economy. Where do these numbers come from, and do you think we will see a similar return on the Brain Activity Map?

Church: We cited the 2011 Batelle Report in our 2012 Neuron paper:

For reasons in items above we expect even faster or larger return on investment, but are trying not to make unrealistic promises.

Medgadget: What is the status of the project now?

Church: The mere mention of such a project has resulted in many of us joining together to make a pre-project with existing resources — already more focused on novel technology than any of us would undertake individually.  New money will make this much more effective and benefit many other labs.

The Brain Initiative: BRAIN Initiative Challenges Researchers to Unlock Mysteries of Human Mind…

Church Lab Website…