Genome-Based Cancer Treatment: A Q&A with Elaine Mardis

Self-professed tech geek Elaine Mardis aims to transform cancer diagnosis and treatment using genetic sequencing.


Elaine Mardis lives for dream machines, from her glossy red Audi S5 to the roomful of shiny new DNA sequencers housed at the Genome Institute at Washington University in St. Louis. As co-director of the institute and director of technology development, Mardis leads teams that are using genome science to transform the diagnosis and treatment of cancer.

A self-professed tech geek, Mardis has been a pioneer of the technological breakthroughs that made it possible to decrypt the 3 billion-plus A’s and T’s, G’s and C’s that make up the human genome. 

Since the 1990s, her team has often been the first to test-drive new sequencing machines. They sequenced the first whole animal, the flatworm, in 1998, and then pushed the systems to handle big chunks of bigger genomes — billions of base pairs. 

The result: A decade ago, reading off one single human genome was a billion-dollar effort. Today, the price tag is around $8,000 and falling fast; it will soon be feasible to sequence each person’s complete DNA as part of routine medicine. 

The implications for cancer are promising. 


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