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Illumina Bets Again on Oxford Nanopore, Joins $28M Investment in Cheaper Gene Sequencing

San Diego-based Illumina has made its second big bet in the past two years on U.K.-based Oxford Nanopore Technologies. The investment is another show of confidence in a startup that boldly promises to sequence entire human genomes far faster and cheaper than anything on the market today, possibly for as little as $1,000 per genome.

Oxford Nanopore is announcing today it has raised $28 million in venture capital (17.4 million pounds) from Lansdowne Partners, IP Group, Invesco Perpetual, new U.S. investors who aren’t being identified, and DNA sequencing giant Illumina (NASDAQ: ILMN). The new cash comes one year after Illumina agreed to invest $18 million in Oxford Nanopore and struck a partnership to sell, market, and distribute Oxford’s DNA sequencing machines when they reach the market.

Sequencing of complete individual human genomes has been one of the big ideas in biology over the past couple of years as companies are racing to make the process better, faster, and cheap enough to potentially make it a mainstay of everyday medical research. Illumina made waves last month when it said it had refined its processes enough to make it possible to sequence whole genomes for $10,000 (albeit with a machine that costs $600,000). Competitors like Carlsbad, CA-based Life Technologies, Switzerland-based Roche, Cambridge, MA-based Helicos Biosciences, and Mountain View, CA-based Complete Genomics are all racing to stake their own claims to dominance in the era of more practical, common DNA sequencing.

Oxford Nanopore is attempting to disrupt that existing order with an entirely different technology, based on what I gathered a couple weeks ago from a conversation with CEO Gordon Sanghera and Spike Willcocks, the company’s vice president of business development. I met these Brits while they were in San Francisco attending the JP Morgan Healthcare Conference.

How is Oxford Nanopore really different? The existing sequencing players use common polymerase chain reaction (PCR) techniques to amplify DNA in a biological sample. They tag the individual units of DNA with fluorescent markers. And they use sophisticated cameras to read the flow of those fluorescent tags, Sanghera says. These steps all have their disadvantages, he says. The PCR requires laborious sample preparation, the fluorescent tags add some cost per individual DNA unit, and the cameras make for expensive capital equipment. Then there’s the challenge of having computing power and the good software required to store, analyze, and visualize all the images from that sequencing.

Oxford Nanopore is taking a different tack on this problem. It doesn’t require any PCR amplification of a sample, any fluorescence, or a camera. Instead, the company’s machine runs … Next Page »

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